The year is 1987. The greed and excess of this particular decade in American culture has reached a fever pitch. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is released this year, giving mainstream audiences a proper glimpse into the madness that transpires behind the scenes with the men who manipulate finances to their own lucrative ends. A generation of trust-fund elites rises to prominence in the Big Apple through little more than charm and pre-established connections. They would have you believe that you should be afraid of the poor, the gangs, the desperate, the quote-unquote “scum of the streets”, yet they are the real predators, with the rest of us being their potential prey. It is a time of rampant consumerism and materialism. It is a time of more, more, more.
Into this societal cesspool swims a shark. A tanned, manicured, well-dressed shark named Patrick Bateman (played to perfection by Christian Bale). He is in every way a product of this environment. He lives in a cushy penthouse, he works at a prestigious Wall Street firm, he spends his nights drinking and partying and doing an impressive amount of cocaine with a group of friends that he feels largely indifferent towards. He beds a number of women, ranging from prostitutes to his coworkers’ girlfriends, though he has a complete lack of chemistry with his supposed fiancé Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon). He is the kind of man with enough wealth, influence, and societal standing to have anything and anyone he wants, yet seems perpetually miserable and empty inside. He is also a serial killer.
Bateman is the protagonist of Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho, based on the controversial novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis. The story follows several episodes in the life of a vapid yuppie as he keeps up appearances among the fellow members of high society, while occasionally blowing off steam by brutally murdering strangers and acquaintances alike. He chases after meaningless status symbols like a reservation at an especially exclusive restaurant, or an account for his loosely defined company that seems to only interest him because an irritating coworker (Jared Leto) got to it first. He is vain, envious, manic, consumed with maintaining his appearance (both physically and socially), and seems completely incapable of empathy or feeling for anyone but himself.
Now, who does this remind you of? What regularly disgraced, former commander-in-chief can you think of who also shares a number of these characteristics, not to mention comes from an incredibly similar background? That’s right, I’m going there. American Psycho offers us a dark window into the awful void of societal circumstance that birthed Donald Trump. Though originally intended as a bleak satire on a particular microcosm of American society in the 1980s, looking back at it now that we know just how dangerous this behavioral mindset can be for the country (and indeed, the world), the film goes from merely disturbing to outright terrifying.
To be clear, it’s not a one-to-one comparison. Though I wouldn’t put it past him, there’s no concrete evidence that Donald Trump has ever personally killed anyone (although based on the film’s somewhat ambiguous conclusion, there might not be any evidence that Bateman killed anyone either). Bateman likes to keep himself in prime physical condition, whereas Trump just likes to brag that he does, as though none of us possess working eyeballs. Both are clearly unfaithful to their respective partners, though Trump at least attempts to feign affection for Melania from time to time (even if he doesn’t always succeed at spelling her name right). Bateman, for his part, can’t muster much more than disgust for Evelyn, and when he finally dumps her in public he’s far more concerned with the scene that she’s making than he is about any emotions she might be having.
Beyond these and other discrepancies, it’s not exactly a stretch to say that the two men are cut from similar cloth. Both love bragging about their achievements and are far too petty to be happy for anyone else’s success. The infamous business card scene is a prime example of Bateman’s inability to view anything in terms other than “how good is mine, and how much better is it than everyone else’s”, even if it’s something as inconsequential as the shade and typeface of a small piece of paper. Before Twitter was mercifully taken away from him, Trump would exhibit similar behavior innumerable times, not allowing anyone else’s accomplishments or even passing comments to go by without initiating a verbal dick-measuring contest. The former wannabe tyrant would constantly bitch and moan if he wasn’t shown reverence and respect at all times; the financial socialite nearly has a panic attack when faced with the possibility that he won’t have a good table for dinner.
That insecurity also fuels the way the two men lash out at the world. Their tools might be different (knives and chainsaws vs. policy and petulance), but the insecurity that drives them comes from the same place. They were both immersed in a culture where everyone is under constant pressure to be the best while also doing what everyone else is doing. Trump found a way to stand out via his brand and his eventual grip on the presidency, Bateman stands out in a more shameful way via his horrific fantasies of torture and mutilation. This is a cruel and unforgiving world that makes men who should feel like they have it all turn empty and hollow. A running joke in the film is that the men are all so similar that they are constantly mistaken for other, equally interchangeable members of their caste, and by the end of the film it’s clear that Bateman views his proclivity for violence not just as an outlet for frustration but as one of the only things that makes him stand out. Except that it might not actually be the case.
Which leads to the scariest part of the film when viewed through a modern lens. The conclusion is very effectively open-ended when it comes to the question of whether Bateman killed all these people or just imagined it. The answer doesn’t matter nearly as much, because whether he did it or not, the point is that he gets away with it. The detective (Willem Dafoe) pursuing the disappearance of Leto’s character ends up largely dismissing the case, taken in by Bateman’s charm and seemingly oblivious to the possibility that he could be involved. When attempting to confess his crimes to his lawyer, Bateman is dismissed as a joke, because the lawyer is convinced that he just saw one of the supposed victims for lunch. When he attempts to visit the victim’s apartment (which he had turned into something of a torture dungeon), he finds that a realtor has cleaned the place up in order to sell it to some other rich bozo, and apparently has no qualms about covering up the murders in order to do so. Again, if that is what happened.
The world that Bateman inhabits (the same world where Trump found his early “success”), is one that insulates the elite and the wealthy from consequences. Trump once famously remarked that he could shoot a man in the street without getting in any serious trouble, and after seeing him go through two impeachments and rally his supporters to attempt a violent coup against the nation’s capital with little to no legal ramifications, it’s hard to argue this point. He is insulated by money, power, and worst of all, popularity. Bateman may be considered a bit of a loser among the groups that he so desperately wants to fit into, but outside of the film itself he has gained quite the considerable fanbase. He belongs to the same echelon as Tony Montana, Rick Sanchez, and Tyler Durden: characters who are worshipped for their surface-level charisma and ideologies by people who clearly don’t understand the concept of satire, and are either unable or unwilling to see the broken, awful shell of a man beneath.
It’s that same worship of surface-level success that launched Trump to power. Anyone who pays any amount of attention to his numerous bankruptcies and financial failings can tell you that he’s nothing like the brilliant businessman he claims himself to be. But through decades of building up his brand and positioning himself as a titan of industry on The Apprentice, he was able to create the illusion in the public eye that he was a man worthy of all the praise and adulation that he so clearly covets. He can be the nastiest, pettiest, most unstable lunatic to ever sit in the Oval Office, and it doesn’t matter, because the illusion of success that he has crafted will insulate him from the consequences of his actions.
Which is why the final moments of American Psycho are so chilling. Having realized that nobody is going to adequately punish him for his crimes, Bateman collapses next to the friends that he doesn’t especially like, watching footage of Richard Nixon, a president whose crookery has increasingly felt like a blueprint for the atrocities that Trump would commit while in the same position. One of Bateman’s friends observes that Nixon is full of shit, trying to convince everyone that he’s actually a kindly old man while hiding a much darker agenda underneath. Bateman privately observes that what’s inside doesn’t matter. He has learned from his recent experience that no matter how awful a person is on the inside, if they’re in the right position of power, they’re virtually untouchable. Nixon may have eventually been caught and resigned, but his influence can still be felt on American politics to this day. Bateman stares into the camera, simultaneously liberated and isolated, and reflects that “this confession has meant nothing”.
There are plenty of reasons to revisit American Psycho. The costumes, set design, and killer soundtrack (pun intended) all brilliantly evoke the era. Mary Harron’s steadfast and deliberate direction evokes the work of Alfred Hitchcock with its precision. The dark comedy still hits like a slap to the face, leading to a number of macabrely hilarious sequences. And Bale’s eccentric and committed performance remains one of his all-time best. But if you want to see a glimpse into a corrupted world that could never last, but did long enough to birth one of the greatest monsters in the history of modern politics, you may find far more darkness there than you were already expecting from a film about a mass murderer. And at the end, we can all find ourselves relating to Bateman’s secretary (Chloë Sevigny) as she discovers her boss’s journal filled with grotesque drawings of the violence he has either inflicted or imagined inflicting. Fully aware of the horror he is capable of unleashing, yet helpless to stop him.
American Psycho was recently announced for a 4K Ultra HD Steelbook release on October 5th, exclusively at Best Buy.