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America’s Most Wanted has always been a title that speaks as much to ratings as to rewards. Face it. Our culture is fascinated by psychopathy, a condition distinguished by relentless self-advancement in defiance of ethics and odds. And why not? No mental state offers a more appropriate metaphor for the qualities that made America great — rugged individualism and capitalism. Thus, it’s no surprise that in a year dominated by dot-coms, three major cultural offerings have used psychopaths to critique the politics of profits. Indeed, Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” is a slasher movie for the salary wars. Harron’s film — which joined a box office jewel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a bookstore blockbuster, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, as Dow-driven psycho satires — resurrected Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 story of a well-bred MBA working on Wall Street during the Reagan years. But the book’s Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale in Harron’s film) was also a serial killer whose horrific crimes Ellis described in unremitting detail. The result confirmed Charles Dickens’ observation that no one who identifies America’s imperfections can survive its enmity. Outraged literalists missed Ellis’ joke and sprang for his jugular, a setback from which Ellis’ career has not entirely recovered. Wisely, Harron limits “Psycho’s” carnage in order to emphasize its political commentary, but the film’s ideological critique is savage enough. Like other politically oriented psycho stories, Harron’s film allows the excesses of serial murder — including the kind of cannibalism that has been an incident of satire since Swift — to stand in for corporate consumerism’s voracious devouring of resources. “I ate a few brains. I tried to cook a little,” “Psycho’s” Bateman says, characterizing a period when inventive recipes for mergers and acquisitions swallowed the American worker. Notably, even Dr. Lecter’s latest gastronomic adventure puts irony in service to ideology. In “Hannibal,” a genuinely evil capitalist, abetted by Beltway conservatives, serves the elegant, erudite Lecter to swine. Today’s sharp-edged allegories aren’t the first narratives to equate murder with the market, of course. Postwar America, where consumerism signified one’s devotion to the desirable anti-Communist ethos, gave sociopaths their first significant starring roles. This year’s exquisite “Mr. Ripley” — like “American Psycho,” the recreation of a world where identity is defined by assets — echoes a 1951 story of slaughter and social climbing, George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun.” “American Psycho” finds its pop culture forebear in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944), a film noir masterpiece that Harron evokes in both visuals and vitriol. Noir depicted cynical heroes living in environments that trapped and tainted them; aptly, Psycho portrays its protagonist as jailed by venetian blinds, framed in car windows, and pressed upon by corporate skyscrapers. And while Bateman embodies the Calvin Klein ads of the late ’80s, he is a legitimate heir to Indemnity’s Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman,” Neff says in cool self-assessment. “I have no emotions but greed and desire,” Bateman echoes in a voice-over of his own. “American Psycho” bests “Indemnity’s” body count, but the films are equally lethal toward consumer capitalism. Both Bateman and Neff are princes in new-commerce cultures that produce profits through detached predictions of human misfortune — investments for Bateman and insurance for Neff. Each protagonist climbs the corporate ladder, and then kills, in the city that will become his era’s emblem of unmitigated materialism — Neff’s L.A. and the Manhattan that Bateman shares with Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko. Moreover, each film stages key scenes in the time period’s temple to spending. Neff meets his co-conspirator in a supermarket; Bateman finds victims at a ready-teller. Yet today’s psychopathic protagonist isn’t simply a photocopy of his literary predecessors. In fact, it’s not all together clear that Bateman is “American Psycho’s” bad guy. Certainly, Bateman butchers and bludgeons. But every crime re-enacts the inevitable effects of capitalism, and what Bateman does in secret is never completely distinguishable from what he does on Wall Street. In a consumer culture that has already identified human beings as commodities, Bateman’s crimes simply make the reduction of individuals to inanimate objects literal. Bateman’s first victim emerges as an unsightly laundry problem. Two more victims, a homeless man and his dog, begin and end as refuse in an alley behind the Stock Exchange. The bloody ax murder of an arrogant rival draws unwanted attention, but the point of interest turns out to be the dead man’s showy possessions: “Where did you get that overnight bag?” an acquaintance inquires about a carryall containing the body. Feminists rebelled at Ellis’ depictions of violence against women, but Harron suggests that overt torture differs only in degree from consumer society’s more commonplace abuses. Bateman requisitions prostitutes and then urges them to sell more than their bodies — to put a price on their suffering and self-respect as well. Yet the transaction isn’t really more mortifying than a happy-hour conversation in which Bateman’s buddies offer their assessments of women in general. When Bateman fixates on a pretty victim’s constituent parts as “meat and bone,” we’re already inured to the objectification; his friends have previously dismissed her as a body, unappreciative of irony and unworthy of regard. Capitalism presumes that expansion is unlimited. “I’m glad you said that!” Bateman exclaims to a target preoccupied with personal growth. But continuing profitability requires more and more unconstrained consumption, more and more marketable commodities, and more and more exploitation of resources to sustain it all. Apropos, Bateman’s crimes increase in fury and frequency. When a woman tries to stop him from feeding a living kitten to a cash machine, he shoots her down in the street. Apprehension seems imminent. But the film’s climax comes when Bateman realizes he will not be stopped. Bateman is a psychopath, but a culture that is in thrall to consumption proves to be even grimmer and more gluttonous than he. Ultimately, the people who might expose Bateman abet him. A middle-class detective wants to emulate the Financial District’s masters of the universe, not investigate them. A real estate agent ignores atrocities, ensuring that disturbing allegations don’t threaten market value. A lawyer, more concerned with global profit taking than with professional responsibility, insists that Bateman’s confession of his appalling crimes has been an enormous joke. Despite the film’s evocations, Harron really doesn’t want to rehash the Reagan era. Instead, Psycho addresses any period during which we value each other entirely in terms of list price. The 27-year-old Bateman builds his identity from his assets — the right r�sum�, the right reservation; the right business card, the right bonus; the right suit, the right starting salary. But Bateman realizes that he is an object. Not everyone does. So Harron speaks to wannabe capitalists who define themselves in terms of offerings and options — and who, in doing so, convert themselves into commodities. Expensive commodities, but inventory nonetheless. In Walter Neff’s world, some Americans were still capable of seeing where the relentless devotion to acquisition ended. Neff leaves his admission of avarice and indifference to be heard and heeded by less impassive men. But Bateman, in despair, recognizes that his confession means nothing. At novel’s end, Bateman peers at a doorway that stands as an alternative to the American future. “This is not an exit,” a sign says, and so he remains. Why leave? After all, he is right at home. Terry Diggs is a San Francisco appellate attorney who teaches courses on law and film at Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law.

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