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When the novel “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis was released in 1991 it came out to a hailstorm of controversy. As it would turn out the cinematic version would be no different. In fact long before it was released in cinemas in 2000 the project went through various controversies. In some ways it is surprising it reached the screen at all with producer Edward R. Pressman originally buying the property in 1992 and turning various scripts over the years before settling on the script of eventual director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. This process included a script by Ellis himself which Pressman described as “completely pornographic and ending with a musical number” and as interesting as that sounds it is easy to see why they did not go in that direction.
Settling on script, director and lead star Christian Bale did not end the productions troubles. First there was the wrangling with studio who thought the project needed a starrier lead which led to Leonardo Dicaprio been thrust on to the director much to her annoyance. It is easy see why as while in his current vintage it is possible envisage DiCaprio in the part, let’s face it his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a thousand miles away, back then in his post-Titanic period he would have been ridiculous in the part. Harron well knew this but her objections only led to her being sidelined, and Oliver Stone put in her place as director. Again as great a director as Stone is satire is not really his forte and given the usual standard of his female characters you figure the film might have ended up in even more hot water than it eventually did. Both Harron and Bale held tight as they felt this version would inevitably fall through which it duly did and saw them both return to the project.
Given the events leading up to the shoot it is not surprising that the shoot itself was set with difficulty. Not that this had to do with on-set issues but more to do with outside factors such as brands mentioned in the movie pulling out or distancing themselves from it or various people trying to have the production shut down with feminist icon Gloria Steinman prominent amongst them. Another prominent thorn in the side of Harron during production was C-CAVE (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment) who linked the novel to the case of notorious Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo. This was due to a copy of the novel being discovered on his bedside table upon his arrest. Although the copy of the novel was later thought to be owned by his wife rather than the barely literate Bernardo. The group also threatened to protest the filming throughout. In the end these protests never came to fruition however that did not stop the protests becoming part of the films myth. As Harron wryly points out “As so often happens, a tabloid frenzy had been mistaken for real life.” 
The tabloid frenzy did not abate when the movie was released. This frenzy is more connected with the times than the movie itself as this was 2000 and Post-Columbine there had been much debate about the influence of certain movies and musicians. The movie itself is not the gorefest or the exercise in torture porn you would expect if you were just reading the headlines of the time. For one up until near the end there is not a great deal of gore. Also while there are bloody set-pieces that is not the main thrust here. The movie is more focused on satirising the vanity, greed and obliviousness of this gilded class of Wall Street traders. The central joke being Bateman could get away with committing these murders under everyone’s nose as long as he follows the social conventions of high society. Then again did he commit the murders? While the novel makes it very ambiguous whether he is a murderer or just a sociopath with homicidal tendencies the movie seems to explicitly state it is latter before confusing things with the final scene. Whether or not the murders happen has been a matter of keen debate amongst horror fans ever since.
In the end it does really matter what side of the debate you fall down on as it does little to take away from this excellent. There are several stand-out moments but this personal favourite is the “Hip to Be Square” scene in which Bateman bloodily butchers Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to the sounds of Huey Lewis and the News. This is a scene of perfectly pitched black comedy and is emblematic of the film generally with it mixtures of nasty violence and jet-black. Not an easy balancing act but one that Harron manages exceedingly well. It is a great scene for Bale to show off his acting chops too as he progressively becomes more unhinged during his monologue on Huey Lewis before going completely beserk at the end, only to casually sort himself and light a cigar once the deed is done.
It is ironic that many movie insiders had told Bale the film would be “career suicide” as it turned out to be quite the opposite. As while the feature itself got a mixed critical reception Bale was unanimously praised his performance and, as you will know, went on to much bigger things on the back of it. Most of the criticism focused on the ironic gaze of the violence, misogyny and the satire being repetitive. The latter element is partially true as the story does make some of the same points about 80s materialism and greed culture repeatedly. In terms of the other criticism this seems unfair as the view of the violence is dispassionate as we the viewer are seeing these act through the lens of Bateman but never does the film empathise with that view and there is still scenes that are properly shocking. Similarly while there is a lot of misogyny on display the film never feels itself misogynistic. In fact Harron is clearly satirising misogyny.
In terms of legacy “American Psycho” spawned a truly terrible direct-to-video sequel and there was a mooted TV series that never got made. Funnily enough the former initially had nothing to do with “American Psycho” and was then retconned into being a sequel which is only notable for starring a young Mila Kunis and weirdly William Shatner. Thankfully not many people know about the sequel leaving the films real legacy as being one of the first great horrors of the 21st Century as well being a great snapshot on male narcissism (something that feels even more relevant now).
Director: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough
Run Time: 152 mins
It would be an understatement to say that Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy. Having carved a reputation for himself as one of European cinema’s enfant terrible dating back to his debut feature “Breaking the Waves.” This film may, however, be his most controversial work to date. Certainly, that is the impression you would get give its reception at Cannes where there was said to be several walkouts. That said reactions at film festivals do tend to be exaggerated.
Given what people may have heard you would be forgiven for thinking the work it is a splatterfest, it’s not. However, this is a profoundly nasty tale which includes moments of animal abuse (it should be stated not real animal abuse), child murder and torture amongst its many unpleasantries.
“The House that Jack Built” centres on serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon) who we follow over 12 years in the 70s and 80s. The framing device for the movie is Jack recounts five randomly chosen incidents of murder to Verge (Bruno Ganz). During these dialogues, Jack also frequently goes off on tangents about art, poetry and particularly architecture. These dialogues with Verge can be engaging but also shows Von Trier at his most pretentious. They become particularly grating when they smugly point out plot flaws as if Von Trier wants to pre-empt criticism of some of the more grossly unrealistic moments.
Like many films in Von Trier filmography, there is an autobiographical element. In that, you can frequently interpret Jack’s dialogues with Verge as Von Trier’s conversation with his critics particularly in the frequent accusation of his movies being misogynistic. The misogynistic tag has seemed unfair at times, particularly in connection with “Antichrist,” but you would be hard-pressed to defend this movie against such accusations. Granted you can show acts of misogyny on screen without being misogynistic but the way the film, at times, indulges Jack’s narrative voice and the fact most of the female victims don’t even get a name makes for uncomfortable viewing.
There would be those who would say it is not supposed to be comfortable viewing, and they would be right. However, there seems to be a lot of intentional button-pushing here that has little value beyond trying to shock and offend. The zenith of which occurs in a particularly disturbing scene where Jack hunts a woman (played Sofie Gråbøl) and her two children. These overt attempts to shock will work on some as it did at Cannes, but many will merely find it tiresome. Much like the adolescent nihilism that pervades proceedings with the film repeatedly making the same points about what a cruel and indifferent universe we live in.
Possibly the most annoying thing about the movie is it is not all terrible. Von Trier is still a great filmmaker, and there is some striking imagery in the film especially in its finale. There are also some excellent moments of dry black comedy, and Matt Dillon delivers a brilliantly oddball performance. Pity that so much else here is such a slog.
Overall: A fitfully engaging work from one of cinema’s most notable agent provocateurs but ultimately one that provides little beyond its desire to shock.