Adapting Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel for the big screen was always going to cause a stir. After all, here's a book whose graphic descriptions of torture, murder and cannibalism are so appalling that its original publisher refused to sell it. How could anyone film those lurid accounts of mutilation, including a lower-abdominal rat attack and a whole heap of headless corpses? And would we want to watch it anyway?
Thankfully (unless you're seriously warped), we don't have to. Director Mary Harron, whose debut was the sharply satirical I Shot Andy Warhol, has steered clear of the gorier elements of the novel, concentrating instead on Ellis' witty dissection of '80s materialism in all its slicked-back, power-braced, yuppie awfulness. Her film is a wonderful black comedy, drawing laughs as easily as it disturbs, and only occasionally veering into bloodier territory.
The clever opening credits sequence establishes the theme of American Psycho: a line of blood drips down the white screen, to appear as raspberry sauce on a perfectly composed plate in a pretentious New York restaurant. Here is a society so obsessed by status, money and surface appearances that any real human emotion or relationship is worthless. People themselves are worthless. To the murderous Patrick Bateman, they are meat.
Intent on fitting into the Wall Street set, but aware that "there is no real me, I am simply not there", Bateman isn't a psychopath with a history that explains his behaviour. He is merely someone who kills because he can, because it makes him feel superior, and who will pamper his own body (there's a great 'shower scene' when Bateman talks us through his various lotions) while mutilating those of his victims.
There is very little plot here. Harron simply alternates between deliberately inane conversation pieces (a coolly detached camera, utilising a lot of deep focus, underlines the caricature) and moments of stylised violence. The high point, in which Bateman warms up for a murder by critiquing naff '80s power-ballad band Huey Lewis And The News, then has a little dance before setting to with an axe, is disturbingly dextrous, and as good as the Singin' In The Rain scene in that other notorious social satire, A Clockwork Orange.
And as for Christian Bale, the British actor dumped when Leonardo DiCaprio sought the role - only to be reinstated when Leo headed for The Beach? Well, the guy certainly had a lot to prove - and he's done it. Bale is sensational. Pumped up and preened in a way that's beautiful but also slightly unreal, his preppy accent rich with menace, at once comic, pathetic and incredibly chilling... Bale has created one of the silver screen's great movie monsters.
And, oddly enough, his perfectly-tailored Bateman is also suggestive of a more mainstream character with a talent for being both debonair and destructive: a certain Mr James Bond. Now there's something to think about...
Forget Wall Street's Gordon Gekko: he may have been cut-throat, but Bateman takes it literally. This has now become the definitive movie about '80s greed and materialism. And forget DiCaprio, as Bale puts in a brooding, intense performance.