American Psycho

In his book Understanding Power Noam Chomsky makes a powerful point about Richard Nixon's downfall. The Watergate burglary was massively illegal, but it was also more or less irrelevant: even if the burglars had successfully broken into the Democrat's headquarters it wouldn't have helped Nixon at all because he was already destined to win the election in a landslide. In contrast, his secret bombing of Cambodia was illegal and it also had massive consequences, since tens of thousands of people died. But Cambodia was never an issue in the hearings that forced Nixon to resign and it barely registers in his legacy today. Why? Because there are a lot more Democracts in power than Cambodians, so they had a lot more leverage to punish Nixon.

Chomsky's point is that the critiques that do the most damage aren't necessarily the ones that have the most moral weight behind them. It's a point that is worth keeping in mind when you're watching American Pyscho, which is a satire that skewers the amoral men who run Wall Street. It's protagonist Patrick Bateman starts off as a casually cruel yuppie, but he slowly grows more violent, first killing a rival he has a grudge against, then graduating to murdering homeless people, and ultimately going on a massive murder spree. But I suspect that the reason why American Pyscho is so effective at making this type of self absorbed douchebag look so unappealing is not because it does a great job of illustrating how ruthless Wall Street really is, it's because the movie makes Bateman so pathetic.

The first thing we hear in the movie is Bateman's voice over as he describes his skin maintenance routine. Depending on your relationship to exfoliation, you might find him vain or you might not, but you'll definitely hear that the neediness in his voice; he only goes through his entire rigorous routine so he can impress other people. As the movie goes on, his uncool traits keep piling up. He has terrible taste in music. He's constantly jealous of other people, particularly their business cards. In short, even though he's pretending to be a high powered broker, he completely lacks the swagger that makes someone a 'Master of the Universe.' There are people who can justify Scarface's murders because they are evidence of his will to power, but you can't excuse Bateman's murders because he's only committing them because he lacks willpower.

If it sounds like I'm overstating the case, consider Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Even though Gordon Gekko had some appealing traits, he was always the bad guy, and the film soundly rejects the "greed is good" ethos that he's proposing. But even twenty years after that movie came out Gekko is still inspiring people to go to Wall Street. Power hungry young men see him as being rich and powerful, and they want to be rich and powerful, too, ethics be damned. People could overlook Bateman's violent streak by saying "well, that wouldn't be me; I'm not a killer" if they wanted his penthouse lifestyle badly enough, but no one can overlook his intense insecurity. You can't look at a man beating himself up for having a sub-par business card and say "I want to be like that."

In a perfect world, of course, the fact that Bateman is a serial killer would carry more weight than the fact that he's shallow. But I don't think that's the world we live in. I've seen too many movies that wanted to make ethical arguments against Wall Street that actually ended up reinforcing it's central appeal to believe that people are going to turn their back on being rich just because it's wrong. No, you can't attack the money - you have to attack the vanity that underlies that sort of ego-driven industry. If the only way to get the message across is to lampoon skin-care regimes, so be it. After all, it doesn't matter that Richard Nixon got kicked out for the wrong crime - it just matters that he got kicked out.

Winner: Me

American Psycho on IMDB