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The incredible detail of Willem Dafoe's performance in 'American Psycho'

“I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.” – Patrick Bateman

Whipping out his business card like a knife from a sheath before sliding it across the boardroom table to present to his co-workers, Patrick Bateman, the titular American Psycho reclines back in smug delight. Then, in a strange competition of manhood, his co-worker slides his own card to compare, “eggshell with romalian type”. Bateman seethes internally, “I can’t believe that Bryce prefers Van Patten’s card to mine”.

It’s perhaps the greatest illustration of Patrick Bateman’s own vapid life and the consumerist idea of success that runs through the spine of Mary Harron’s film. Disconnected from wider reality, Bateman (played by Christian Bale), a wealthy New York City investment banking executive surrounds himself with co-workers who look, act and strive toward exactly the same thing as himself. Slicked back black hair, a fitted black suit and round-rimmed glasses fits the description of nearly every employee at the investment bank, so how’s Bateman supposed to stand out?

Each striving for the same generic image of success, Bateman seemingly breaks conformity to imagine himself as a killer, not that his murderous actions are ever realised by the self-indulgent lives of those around him. Though it’s never quite clear what is fantasy and what is reality, his inflated ego and psychopathic tendencies have caused him to view life as skewed. As a result, just like the novel from Bret Easton Ellis, famous for its ambiguity, Bateman is an unreliable narrator. We, nor Bateman himself can trust what he is interpreting.

This indistinct mental state is perfectly demonstrated by director Mary Harron in one ingenious behind the scenes decision made to inspire further confusion. 

After his brutal murder of co-worker Paul Allen with a lumber axe, Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) begins to sniff around the investment banking firm, searching for clues of Allen’s killer. He approaches Bateman in three key interview scenes, each of which Mary Hannon asked Dafoe to perform three separate times. In the first take, Dafoe was told that his character knew Bateman was the killer, in the second he was told to be suspicious, and in the third, he was totally oblivious. Later, in the editing of each of these interviews, the takes were spliced together to keep the audience at a loss to the detective’s suspicions, for at one moment he seemed accusatory, and the next like a close friend. 

Visually shifting his body language between aggressive and inquisitive adds complexity to the fabric of the film, placing you directly in Bateman’s point of view as he tries to figure out the detective’s position. Manic and paranoid, Bateman can’t decide if he is being accused or not, so instead, the audience sees an amalgamation of different tones of voice.

In a story concerned with meddling identities and the line between reality and fantasy, this is a meticulous film detail that subconsciously adds to the audiences own paranoia as to the danger of Patrick Bateman. Much like the book, the final conclusion is open-ended with the protagonists murderous spree appearing real, even though his friends and colleagues fail to acknowledge his obvious villainy. Though, as narcissists themselves, it would be no surprise that they didn’t notice…

Explore the anatomy of the interview scene right here: