Dargue: Fractured Reflection

Representations of the Psychopath and Society in Mary Harron’s Film Adaptation of American Psycho and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me

Joseph Dargue, University of Cincinnati

Winter, 2009

ThompsonThere have been numerous representations of the psychopath or serial killer in crime literature. Many texts depict this figure as a metaphorical embodiment of society’s moral deviations, or consciously use his killings as part of an elaborate social critique of the world’s corruption and emptiness. According to Lee Horsely, “He moves amongst ordinary people unrecognized, ‘abnormally normal’… in his appearance and behavior” [1], critiquing his society by indulging in schizophrenic and often homicidal activities. Patrick Bateman, of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991), and Lou Ford, from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), are two examples of this type.

What sets these texts apart from standard crime fiction, however, is that neither adheres to traditional detective story. Instead, they both buck this narrative trope by “stay[ing] within the mind of the killer” in such a way that makes them “effectively disturbing” [2]. To an extent, there appears to be no moral voice that balances out the serial killer’s viewpoint in either American Psycho or The Killer Inside Me. At least, not in the same way that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot might. On the contrary, narrative is subjective for Bateman and Ford, and absolutely restricted to the “disordered imagination” [3].

Adapted for the screen in 2000, American Psycho is grounded in the cocaine-addled, consumer-crazed Wall St. America of the early 1990s. Very much a reflection of the period, there are many characters, mostly investment bankers, who enjoy abundant wealth, wear almost identical designer suits and “even go to the same barber” [4]. This jungle of inseparable young urban professionals (a.k.a. yuppies) therefore provides the perfect anonymity for the psychopath alienated in a loveless, greedy and money-driven “commercial oversaturation to which the most common reaction is one of ‘total and sheer acceptance’” [5].

Patrick Bateman lives in a world of superficiality and vacuous extremity, and through this lens the author “makes devastating use of the serial killer to launch an attack on 1990s consumer culture” [6]. Indeed, the film juxtaposes horrific images of dead bodies and Bateman’s own blood lust with phatic conversation and innocuous consumerism that even subsume the former. In this way, like the society it mimics and critiques, the film manages to desensitize its audience. Viewers are pushed to a point where they must accept violent murder as they would business card designs or eloquent monologues concerning Huey Lewis and the News.

In a particularly expressive moment, Bateman exposes the futility of morality in a world like this, incongruously calling for “a return to traditional moral values” and greater promotion of “general social concern and less materialism” [7]. He speaks these lines with knowing irony, aware that he – like his sneering friends Bryce, McDermott and Van Patten – does not believe in or care about any of it. In thirty seconds, he has revealed the “hollowness” of “conventional social forms” which are superficially supported by society. As with Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, he can see through the transparent,  “‘pretendsy’… nature of most people’s adherence” [8] to any sense of social-conscience or moral investment, including his own.

In the scene that precedes his killing of Paul Allen, a Wall St. colleague, Patrick calmly admits his inhumanity to a drunken Paul over dinner: “I like to dissect girls… Did you know I’m utterly insane?” [9]. Paul’s ignorance to this statement is representative of society’s “damning failures… to see the beast under the blandness” [10], and instead compliments him on his “great tan” [11]. Even Evelyn, Patrick’s fiancée, does not notice his crude drawing of a woman’s death on a restaurant table. Rather than listen to his words – that he needs ‘to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale” [12] – she is distracted by a friend’s designer bracelet. Like Patrick, society “feels nothing, believes in nothing, and, other than what [it] acquires from style magazines, knows nothing” [13]. He lives in a landscape of anonymity, alienation and communication breakdown where many of the characters only come together through the cold emptiness of dinner reservations.

In allegorical terms, New York is being placed in direct relation to Bateman’s sickness and inhumanity within the text. Bateman stands as an articulated form of his society’s own implicit and explicit aberrations, and as he continues through this apparent wasteland, his “inner and outer reality” [14] blurs to the point of being indistinct. The film is attempting to show the two worlds of Bateman’s interior and exterior as merging forces that in effect render the society in which he operates a place “Emptied of every human value” and as “the ultimate urban hell” [15]. There is even the suggestion in the film that he “killed Paul Allen with an axe in the face” [16] out of jealousy, simply because Paul could get tables at Dorsia, the hot new restaurant. As Patrick wields the axe, he screams ‘Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!” [17]. This is an expression of socialite consumerism taken to its end-extreme.

Bateman’s vitriolic mental torture by the film’s conclusion is haunting as well as foreboding, and perhaps “indicative” of a nation’s awakening hangover from a decade of “non-contingent crimes, a question mark and the purported end of history.” [18] His internal imprisonment inside “the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil” [19] passes over completely into the soulless void of the external world in this scene with extreme impact. He is, in effect, threatening us as viewers with his pain and torture — with the ‘punishment [that] continues to elude” [20] him:

My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. [21]

It is in this hell, this society that he has tried to murder, that Bateman is forced to live. Whether he is happy living his life in this climate of moral bankruptcy and social fragmentation is often unclear. What is clear, however, is that his “killing can be seen as an expression of [the] inability to cope, but more fundamentally it is an expression of the dehumanization of the society to which he wants to belong” [22]. By the end of the film he wants his entire generation, responsible for its own strangulation, to feel the pain he has felt and to receive his own constant self-punishment. Indeed, he wants to make society realize its own dehumanized moral death.

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me places its psychopath at the heart of a small, sleepy town with high moral values on the surface and a repressed underbelly of corruption underneath. Lou Ford is perhaps a representation of this split, being an outwardly respectable deputy sheriff with “His next-door-neighbor banality” [23] by day and an internally clever murderer with a secret “sickness” [24] by night. In this sense, Thompson is able to draw a dark satire of southern towns in the 1950s – places that were not always as they seemed.

Like American Psycho, Thompson’s novel also makes use of a highly subjective first person narration. Readers are forced to see the author’s world through Ford’s fragmented, “teasing and unreliable” mind, and, by proxy, become solipsistic psychopaths themselves. As Ford observes his landscape, the reader also assumes “the alienated position of a psychopath who is also a scathing observer, stripping off illusory surfaces and denouncing what he sees” [25].

In the same way that Patrick Bateman is dismissed out of hand as the serial killer type, most believe Ford to be incapable of murder. This again echoes the fact that the psychopath is able to move in and out of society undetected — anonymous in that he portrays no personal interest to those around him. Like Patrick, who is described as “such a boring, spineless lightweight” [26], Lou’s friend and boss Sheriff Bob Maples cannot believe what kind of human being he might actually be:

I know what you are, don’t I, Lou? Know you backwards and forwards. Known you since you was kneehigh to a grasshopper, and I never knowed a bad thing about you. Know just what you’re goin’ to say and do, no matter what you’re up against… [27]

Sheriff Maples is clearly in denial here and is trying to convince himself of Ford’s “typical Western-county peace officer” [28] innocence, usually taken for granted. However, in the process, he is subconsciously negating the idea that society is itself metaphorically psychopathic, corrupt and sham – a suggestion embodied by Ford’s psychopathic mind. Indeed, as Ford asserts, “it’s a screwed up, bitched up world” and “no one, almost no one, sees anything wrong with it” [29]. Almost no one except, of course, himself.

As Ford operates on both sides of the law, he is capable of occupying concurrent rational and irrational states of mind. This reinforces the concept of a split personality – a kind of “schizophrenia” that, by extension, is “an internalization of society’s hypocrisy” [30]. Indeed, his dark double-life is a scathing and “blackly comic” reflection of Central City’s own Jekyll and Hyde duality, because it is “a tension that manifests itself in [his] straight-faced parodies of cliché and in ironies that only he can fully understand” [31].

In a speech to Jonnie Pappas in the jail cell, just before murdering him, Ford critiques small town hypocrisy as an explanation for the necessary split of his personality. After all, one cannot really avoid becoming a schizophrenic in a place where “The police are playing crooks… and the crooks are doing police work,” where “The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians,” and where “The tax collectors collect for themselves” [32]. Perhaps his killing can be justified as the “logical conclusion” [33] for a society bogged down by moral confusion. Moreover, perhaps “The killer, like the detective” – in this case – “can be seen as a protagonist working towards revelations” [34] and trying to expunge the corruption inherent within his society’s framework. In a society of alienation, decay, and madness, Ford’s actions might therefore be acknowledged as a logical response.

Certainly, this is underscored by the contrasted descriptions of brutal killings and mundane, small town gossip. In particular, the scene in which Ford murders his girlfriend Amy points to the antithesis between the violence and the peace that divides society:

She smiled and came toward me with her arms held out.

“I won’t darling. I won’t ever say anything like that again. But I do want to tell you how much –”

“Sure,” I said. “You want to pour your heart out to me.”

And I hit her in the guts as hard as I could.

My fist went back against her spine, and the flesh closed around it to the wrist. [35]

This passage pits Amy’s implied love for Ford against his near-instantaneous violent reaction. While graphically shocking, such violence is nonetheless emblematic of the social critique that the author is trying to make. The quaint fantasy of small town life where childhood sweethearts live happily ever after is brought into sharp relief by the reality of death, backhand dealing, lies and corruption – a reality that Ford wants to expose, hidden just below the surface of Central City.

Both American Psycho and The Killer Inside Me are fraught with damning social commentaries that pose the “schizophrenic personality as an image of the psychosis of an entire society” [36]. In this sense, they attack not only its cultural, political and moral apathy and bankruptcy, but also its potential for base violence, self-mutilation, and destruction.

As a bleak social satire, American Psycho juxtaposes its world’s ‘uncontrolled consumer urges with the psychopathic imbalance of a modern cannibal” [37]. Similarly, Thompson’s text explores the mind that purposefully splits itself between good and evil: Ford is the deviant outcast whose skewed narrative and subjective views, actions and murders implicitly “critique the socio-political world that he stands against” [38]. Serial killers in these texts are employed as caricatures to explore the nature and ramifications of alienated, burnt-out societies fuelled by their own hypocrisy. The protagonists’ murderous sensibilities are metaphoric of this amorality and therefore, in the end, perhaps justifiable.

Copyright © 2009 Joseph Dargue



Works Cited

American Psycho, dir. Mary Harron (Lions Gate Films, 2000)

Haut, Woody, Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999)

Horsley, Lee, The Noir Thriller (Chippenham, Wiltshire: Palgrave, 2001)

Horsley, Lee, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (London: Orion Books, 2002)




[1] Horsley, Lee, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.127

[2] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.119

[3] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.190

[4] American Psycho, dir. Mary Harron (Lions Gate Films, 2000), T 00:17:08

[5] Horsley, Lee, The Noir Thriller (Chippenham, Wiltshire: Palgrave, 2001), p.222

[6] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.188

[7] American Psycho, T 00:11:29

[8] Horsley, The Noir Thriller, p.123

[9] American Psycho, T 00:25:10

[10] Horsley, The Noir Thriller, p.222

[11] American Psycho, T 00:25:15

[12] American Psycho, T 01:13:33

[13] Haut, Woody, Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999), p.219

[14] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.191

[15] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.191

[16] American Psycho, T 01:19:44

[17] American Psycho, T 00:27:11

[18] Haut, Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, p.220

[19] American Psycho, T 01:32:15

[20] American Psycho, T 01:33:47

[21] American Psycho, T 01:32:28

[22] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.190

[23] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.127

[24] Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (London: Orion Books, 2002), p.22

[25] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, pp.129–130

[26] American Psycho, T 01:28:11

[27] Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, p.70

[28] Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, p.23

[29] Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, p.105

[30] Horsley, The Noir Thriller, p.123

[31] Horsley, The Noir Thriller, p.123

[32] Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, p.105

[33] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.130

[34] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.128

[35] Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, pp.164–165

[36] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.130

[37] Horsley, The Noir Thriller, p.221

[38] Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, p.117