American Psycho is a cult classic that was way ahead of its time. An over-the-top blend of horror, thrills, and dark comedy. But one scene, in particular, stands out as a shining achievement. Amidst the blood-soaked moments of chainsaws and axes, there is one gore-free moment that is, well, perfect. Join us as we explore the best scene in Mary Harron’s American Psycho.
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American Psycho shocked moviegoers upon its release in 2000. Its graphic depiction of violence and over-the-top absurdity was unlike anything else in cinemas. In a lot of ways, the film was way ahead of its time. At first glance, the story about a successful investment banker with a deviant sexual obsession who gruesomely murders people doesn’t seem like a comedy… but that’s exactly what it is. A dark comedy. Very dark. Darker than the blood-spattered alleyway streets after a violent, unprovoked murder.
The film, which is adapted from the novel by Brett Easton Ellis, stars a young Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. A yuppie, New York businessman in the 1980’s obsessed with looks, wealth, and status, who’s revealed to be the titular “psycho.” His name, Bateman, is an homage to the killer Norman Bates. The infamous murderer from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and its subsequent sequels. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2000 where it created a lot of buzz. It has since gone on to develop a cult following. It’s a well-crafted story that balances humor, social critique, and thrills. Directed by Mary Harron with the screenplay co-written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, there are no doubt several scenes that could arguably qualify as “perfect.”
The moment Bateman murders Paul Allen, played by Jared Leto, with an ax while gleefully dancing to Huey Luis and the News. The part where Bateman torments two call girls while posing for himself in the mirror. But one scene, in particular, stands out by highlighting the controlling, neurotic mindset of Patrick Bateman better than any other, while also managing to be the funniest moment in the film.
The Business Card Scene is a subtle and subdued moment for a film that features Christian Bale chasing a prostitute naked, and blood-soaked through the halls of an apartment complex while wielding a chainsaw. It’s a duality that the film balances perfectly. Much like the character of Patrick Bateman, the movie balances moments of the mundane and routine, with moments of monstrous violence. But it’s in these moments of the mundane that we hear Patrick’s inner monologue and get a greater understanding of who he is and how he thinks. This is demonstrated in the film’s opening which details Patrick’s daily morning routine. What lotions, pore cleansers, and body scrubs he uses religiously; showcasing that he is a disciplined creature of habit who places significant importance on his appearance. But no scene does it better than that Business Card Scene.
The scene begins with Bateman and some co-workers sitting around a table in a conference room at work. Bateman’s future victim, Paul Allan, approaches and mistakes Bateman for another co-worker. Marcus Halbastram. It’s a trend that would continue throughout the film. Friends and co-workers repeatedly mistaking one another for somebody else. Demonstrating how incredibly unoriginal, each of them are, despite their attempts to outdo one another. They wear the same suits, have the same haircuts, and dine at the same restaurants.
When Paul Allen hands a business card to a co-worker, it prompts Bateman to show off his own new business card. Bateman swings open his cardholder and the sound it makes is unmistakable. The sound of a sword being promptly removed from its scabbard in preparation for a duel. For combat. Bateman’s need to be respected and viewed as superior prompts him to show off his newly printed card in an attempt to elevate his status among his peers. The sound design plays an imperative role in this scene. The noise of the card as it slides across the desk or moves through the air is amplified. It’s slow and ominous and conveys a level of significance beyond that of a mere business card.
The card is simple. It’s white with minimal text in all black. Bone is the name of the slightly off-white color according to Bateman, who sits back and smirks pompously. It’s a nod to Bateman’s obsession with death that would come up again later as he completes a crossword puzzle and fills in all of the rows and columns with the words “Bone” and “Meat.” Regardless of whether they fit or not.
As the men compliment Bateman on his exquisite taste, his co-worker David Van Patten lays down his business card. The two cards are placed side by side on the table and at first glance, they seem identical. In fact, even after a long glance, they seem identical. Both are white with black text. Both have the business’s phone number in the top left corner and the company name in the right. In the center are their names and job titles, both of which are “Vice President.” Along the bottom is the business address. David’s card has slightly more texture and the text is in slightly bolder print, but their names are the only real difference between the cards.
David’s card is immediately lauded with compliments like “That is really nice” and “Jesus that is really super.” Bateman begins to boil. He does his best to maintain his composure, but through his internal monologue we learn how upset this makes him. It’s a failure in his mind. A failure to live up to the standard he feels he must. A failure to maintain his status.
When Bryce places his card on the table next, the pattern is clear. All three cards look nearly identical, yet each of the men describe their cards with such detail and pride. As if their card is somehow better than the rest. We see that Bryce’s job title is also Vice President. It’s a title that seems important and authoritative, yet it’s a title they all share. Equals with delusions of grandeur peacocking to make themselves feel higher in status.
Bateman lets out a forced compliment through a quivering voice, before then asking to see Paul Allan’s card. The business card that ignited this competition of egos, to begin with. Bryce pulls one of Paul Allan’s cards from his jacket and holds it up. The shot is an extreme close-up. The card fills the screen. Phone number… company… name… job title… and business address. The music is low. Ominous. And the card is brightly lit in the center while fading to darker edges. This forces the focus of the viewers into the same tunnel vision viewpoint of Bateman.
His reaction is so over the top. His trembling hands, his utter defeat. Sweat droplets on his forehead. According to director Mary Harron on the film’s audio commentary for its Blu-ray release, they filmed several takes of the scene, and take after take, Bale was able to force himself to perspire at the same exact moment. It’s real sweat glistening on his forehead. It perfectly showcases Bateman’s obsession with status and appearance and links his mental status to that obsession. With each card presented, Bateman inches closer to losing control. To losing his temper and acting out in the manner that comes naturally to him. Violently. But he can’t. Not here, because he needs the approval of these men. In the very next scene, however, he unleashes that pent-up rage and kills a homeless man in the film’s first on-screen murder. This is significant because defines the divide between his two lives and shows that he uses violence as an outlet to relieve the stress of his “normal” day-to-day life.
This business card scene manages to accomplish so much in such a small amount of time. It delves into the mindset of the titular psycho. It puts a spotlight on just how ridiculous these men are with nonstop attempts to one-up one another. It spotlights how extremely similar they all are to one another while feeling as though they are somehow standing out. Bateman would end up using this to his advantage by essentially blending into the endless crowd of Wall Street yuppies he’s surrounded by.
The film would eventually evolve into chaotic violence that escalates in absurdity. Bateman’s mental state worsens and he begins to question what he’s actually done and what he hasn’t, leading the viewers to wonder if any of it was real. Of course, the straight to video sequel starring Mila Kunis and William Shatner confirmed that it was, in fact, all real. But take my word for it… you can skip that one and just stick with the original.
In a movie that so prominently features dismemberment, beheadings, masochism, chainsaws, knives, guns, and feeding a cat to an ATM, it was this little scene about business cards that stood out as… well, perfect.