Psycho humour falls flat

Winnipeg Free Press
Tue, Apr 11, 2000
By Lindor Reynolds

If A female film director depicts a sobbing, naked woman being chased and eventually killed by a chainsaw-wielding lunatic, is this a scene of debasement and violence against women?

Damn straight, and none of the glowing tributes to American Psycho director Mary Harron's vision can change the colour of the blood spilled.

American Psycho, which opens in Winnipeg Friday, is based on Bret Easton Ellis' notorious 1991 novel of the same name. The book made Mr. Ellis famous and garnered him numerous fans, among them Paul Bernardo, who kept the sexual violence primer on his bedside table. American Psycho would have been a balm to Mr. Bernardo had he ever wondered if he were alone in his desire to rape, torture and kill young women. Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Mr. Ellis' novel, would have seemed a kindred soul, if psychotic killers can be said to have souls.

And now Ms Harron, daughter of Canadian humorist Don Harron, has brought Bateman to the big screen. Critics have lauded her efforts (and those of two female co-writers), citing their genders as the reason American Psycho is more black comedy than slasher flick, more a denouncement of the greedy '80s than an examination of a man who really, really likes to terrify, torture and murder young women. All of the usual warm fuzzies about the gentle nature of women at work have been applied and it's all vacuous nonsense.

The mom factor has even been played shamelessly. Elm Street magazine devoted much of a Harron profile to stories of the director's relationship with her own mother and the revelation that, weeks after the film's release, Mary Harron will give birth to her second child. All of this creative fertility!, we are supposed to exclaim. This must be a brave woman if she's willing to take a disgusting novel and turn into a wry work of art.

Ms Harron may be brave, but a screening of American Psycho last week proved the film is neither wry nor art. It is nearly two hours of watching an empty-eyed killer humiliate and brutalize women without regard to consequence. It is two hours of realizing this is being played for laughs with an abundance of obvious pauses for chortles -- look at the size of that cell phone! Can you believe he's holding up a Huey Lewis and the News CD? It's a chance to pretend that a movie about a serial sexual killer can be funny.

IT CAN'T and it's not. The movie is marketed to older teenagers, to a date crowd looking for something fun on a Saturday night. Unless they're all sociopaths in training, this movie isn't it. Granted, Ms Harron has downplayed some of the more overt violence in the book, added a great soundtrack and tossed in a couple of sexy scenes as a draw. It's almost mean-spirited to gripe that those sweaty moments are followed by yet another woman being beaten, killed and dismembered. For some of us, that takes the fun right out of an evening.

The movie's web site is a cynical, nasty piece of work intended to further the light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek-fun myth. Visitors are told they can "get e-mail from a killer" because: "Patrick Bateman is alive and well and now on-line ... he wants to confess his darkest secrets to you via e-mail." Does Paul Bernardo have e-mail? Could he ghost-write the responses? Without effort, because their crimes are the same. There's no entertainment value here, just a sense of wonderment that, even as Mr. Bernardo's sick notes to his lawyer are making the front page, crimes such as his are being played for a giggle.

Bret Easton Ellis was allowed to hide behind the mantle of artistic merit when his book was published and an effort to prevent its entry into Canada was launched. A similar, though muted, effort was made against the Toronto shooting of the film. The fear is not so much that another Paul Bernardo protégé will find this film inspirational viewing (although the thought occurs) but that all the natter about a female director will blur American Psycho's plot.

This is a movie about a man who loathes women, has sex with an unfortunate number and hangs their mutilated bodies in his closet. It doesn't matter whose daughter directs the film. This is not entertainment. It's hatred.