Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

Congratulations Christian Bale for your recent Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in The Fighter! For some strange reason award accolades have escaped you until this past year. Bale has delivered an abundance of great performances throughout his long career. His career began at the age of 13 with one of the best juvenile (18 & under)  performances ever in Spielberg’s little seen gem Empire of the Sun, which was released in 1987. In the 1990s, Bale appeared mostly in musicals, romantic dramas, and coming-of-age stories in movies such as Newsies, Little Women, and All the Little Animals. Although Bale was successful at playing these young, naive character roles, he hadn’t yet achieved any sort of notoriety or much acclaim as an actor. At least none that matched the reception he received after his debut performance in Empire of the Sun. In 2000 that all changed for Bale, when he got the role of his career playing Patrick Bateman in the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial bestseller novel American Psycho.
The story of American Psycho takes place in the mid-1980s in New York, and it follows the character of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie who also happens to be a serial killer. The movie and the book it’s based on can be described as a psycho thriller with elements of black comedy, satire, and horror woven into it. The character of Patrick Bateman appears to be your typical ideal male of the 1980s; he’s handsome, in impeccable shape, rich and incredibly materialistic. He’s also a complete narcissist who's mentally unraveling at the seams. He's unable to control his violent urges, so he ends up killing lots of people in the most brutal ways. It’s an extremely tricky role for an actor to play, because you don’t want to glamorize the character and make him someone you'd admire or care about. While Christian Bale looks strapping and built as Bateman; he acts very despicable, his social ineptitude is laughable, and he's a complete dork. The movie and Bale’s performance never asks you to envy this horrendous character, it does the opposite in fact, it helps to make you despise everything that Patrick Bateman stands for.
Bale in The Machinist
Christian Bale is known as an extreme method actor, meaning that he’ll do almost anything if it will help him portray his characters. Bale has had to fluctuate between losing and gaining unhealthy amounts of weight for his roles. He holds the record for the biggest weight loss ever by an actor - at 63lbs for his role in The Machinist. Bale, who is from Wales, also has an uncanny ability to speak authentically in a different accent. He has employed a different accent for almost every one of his characters. For American Psycho, Bale had to get in the best shape of his life and speak in an affluent New York accent, which he does flawlessly. He also likes to stay in character whenever he's on the set filming.
          Christian Bale has built up a reputation as one of the most dedicated, committed and respected actors working today. While his dedication to his craft of acting is usually inspiring, the ugly side of his acting methods came out in 2009 when his infamous three-minute f-bomb filled rant on the set of Terminator Salvation was leaked online. Bale said, "I completely mixed up fact and fiction, I'm half John Connor (the character he was portraying at the time), I'm half Christian there." (link)
It’s hard to categorize what kind of performance Bale delivers in American Psycho, because there are so many different layers to it. He easily embodies the stoic playboy persona that Patrick Bateman appears to be. But when Bateman turns violent in the film, you suddenly see the true nature of this character and Bale is frighteningly convincing with his transitions. Whenever Bateman is about to kill a person he’ll play a song from one of his favorite musical artists including Huey Lewis & The News and Whitney Houston. During these scenes, Bale talks in the most poignant emotional way, as if he’s saying the most profound things ever about the music. Then he’ll instantly turn to a violent sociopath. We then understand that this is Patrick Bateman’s murder ritual to help get him excited, and Bale’s performance is so soulful and energetic that we can’t help but be amused and disturbed at the same time. 
Film critic Roger Ebert remarked in his review of the movie that, "Christian Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” (link)            
There’s also an unmistakable comic aspect to the performance. Throughout the film we see Patrick Bateman having a hard time relating to those around him, even though, on the surface he appears to be just like everyone else. There are scenes when Bale seems so remote and unaware of how to act in social situations that we almost feel bad for his character, that is if he wasn’t a serial killer. The fact that Bale doesn’t ever let the audience look at his character with sympathy, allows us to view him as the pathetic person  he truly is. In one of the movie’s most hilarious scenes, all of the co-workers at Bateman’s Wall Street firm are comparing their business cards. In this scene, we witness how intense Bateman gets during male competition games. Bale’s intense demeanor combined with his overly concerned and passionate voice over during this scene, make it very comical. This is where we truly begin to realize that his character isn’t all there mentally, he even later kills one of his colleagues because he had a better business card than him.

In the third act of the film, Patrick Bateman gets closer and closer to getting caught by the police and he starts to unravel. The line between what’s real and what’s coming from inside Bateman’s head is completely blurred by this point in the movie. This is when Bale’s performance goes all out. In the confession scene, Bateman calls his lawyer on the phone and leaves him a message where he admits to every awful thing he can remember doing. (“I just had to kill a lot of people!”) In this scene the camera stays on a close-up of Bale’s face throughout. This scene exemplifies the extraordinary abilities of Bale’s acting; his character is completely hysterical at this point and is crying profusely throughout the entire scene. In this scene we see the character go through many emotions of panic, sadness, remorsefulness, disgust and relief. The director of the film, Mary Harron, in her commentary track says, “I don’t know of a screen performance where more emotions flicker past in mere moments. If Bale’s performance was just manic energy, it would be a Jim Carrey performance, but what’s remarkable about it are the subtleties of it.”
After we witness his confession where Bateman admitted everything to his lawyer, the audience expects the movie is coming to a close and Bateman will be caught. But that’s not what happens.

            After this scene, Bale has to continue keeping up the character’s manic energy because Bateman still manages not to be caught. When Patrick Bateman confronts his lawyer about the message he left on his machine, his lawyer is baffled and says he doesn’t believe him. At this moment, Bale goes back to his normal stoic Patrick Bateman persona and we understand that the character will never receive punishment for his crimes. The movie ends up with a close-up on Bale’s face; the last shot is the camera zooming into his blank emotionless eyes. We understand this scene because of the voice-over, “my punishment continues to elude me... there is no catharsis”, but we feel the true impact and message of it through Bale’s performance.
            Christian Bale’s performance in American Psycho is one of my favorite acting performances in all of movies. Patrick Bateman is one of the most loathsome characters ever to be portrayed on film, and Bale’s performance brought out all the aspects of the character. He was able to project the handsome, narcissistic facade that men may aspire to be, but he also portrayed the character’s pathetic nature and allowed you to laugh at him. It takes guts to play a character that has no redeeming qualities. When the movie was released in 2000, it received a mixed reaction from both critics and audiences at the time. Now the film is highly-regarded, and is recognized as Christian Bale’s star making and possibly best performance. His performance in this movie was the reason director Christopher Nolan cast him in what has become his most well known role as Bruce Wayne / Batman.
When director Mary Harron was originally looking for actors to cast as Patrick Bateman, she had a hard time finding an actor who didn’t want to discuss the psychological nature of the character. Christian Bale was the first actor that she met that said there really was no psychological basis for this character. Patrick Bateman is a representation of the worst of the male ego. Recognizing that idea was what got Bale the job; being able to portray all the layers of that idea within this vile character is what made the performance and Christian Bale legendary.

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