American Psycho – Scene Building
The scene that I will deconstruct in this post is the ‘Hip to be Square’ Scene from American Psycho. The setting is Patrick Bateman’s brightly lit, minimalist apartment at night. Bateman wields an axe, wears a raincoat and brandishes a copy of Huey Lewis and the News’ Fore album. Paul (Jared Leto) lolls in a drunken stupor on the covered floor and sofa that have been prepared for his butchering. There is no non-diagetic sound. The sounds before Hip to be Square blares out are the unnerving sounds of Bateman glugging down his meds and the noise of the axe being placed on the floor.
The tone of this scene is at once comical and menacing. The scenery enforces this through building upon the things about Patrick we are already aware of. The naff modern art on the wall reinforces the superficiality and materiality that Bateman has set up his life around and the meticulous covering of the sofa and floor and the fact that Bateman wears a raincoat illustrate his narcissism and anal retentiveness as ridiculous.
Christian Bale’s portrayal of a psycho is almost slapstick: he dances and maniacally waxes lyrical about Huey Lewis:
“In ’87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip To Be Square’, a song so catchy most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics – but they should! Because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself!”
He grins at Paul and gesticulates as he circles his victim. There is a moment in the bathroom in which the comical element of the scene is entirely undercut when Bateman looks at himself solemnly in the mirror before sauntering out with the axe. The murder itself is the result of a slow and comical building of tension. “Hey Paul!” – Patrick brings down the axe on his head and proceeds to hack him to pieces. Christian Bale is entirely convincing as a narcissistic psychopath – at once a comedy villain and a terrifying product of American capitalism and materialism.
American Psycho feels unique within the Psychological Thriller genre as it is both utterly fantastical yet also incredibly recognisable. It captures the zeitgeist of the late eighties and successfully translates Bret Easton Ellis’s postmodern nightmare into film.