By Alison Lang
Mary Harron deals in troubled icons. The Canadian-born, New York-based director has a knack for telling the stories of complex, highly influential and often scandalous figures who left indelible marks on pop culture. As a music journalist, she observed and wrote about the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol; as a filmmaker, she’s portrayed the lives of Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page, and Anna Nicole Smith. Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho (based on the notorious novel by Bret Easton Ellis) is Harron’s best-known foray into the world of self-iconography and egotism, wrapped in its own haze of scandal and controversy. Though the film’s protagonist Patrick Bateman is a fictional character, he’s his own icon as much as ours: an emblem of failed masculinity, capitalist excess and elitism-via-taste. For this reason and many others, Harron’s vision of American Psycho not only deserves its praise as an evergreen feminist satire of toxic masculinity and capitalism, but also stands as an eternally relevant vision of what our world is becoming.
Harron was born in 1953 in Bracebridge, a town near Ontario’s Muskoka River. She grew up in a showbiz family—her father Don Harron was a longtime actor, best known for his work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) while her first stepmother, Virginia Leith, was Stanley Kubrick’s ex-wife and starred in his first film, Fear and Desire (1953). Harron spent summers with her family in Los Angeles, and became accustomed to the mercurial push and pull of the artists’ life: “You’re successful and then you’re not,” she told The Believer in 2014. “In some ways as a young person I probably had a wider perspective on a career than most young people do. It’s a different upbringing than if your parent is an optometrist or something. I had a real sense of the roller coaster growing up, and what it can give you as well.” 
At age 13, Harron moved to England and later studied at Oxford. While in school, she started writing about punk music and art, including a feature on Andy Warhol for the Oxford student paper. After graduating, she relocated to New York, where the late-‘70s punk explosion was taking root, and began freelancing for the Village Voice, NME and the legendary Punk! fanzine founded by John Holstrom, Legs McNeil and Ged Dunn. Harron landed the first interview with the Sex Pistols in American media, for Punk: she also interviewed the Ramones and Brian Eno. She moved back to London in the early ‘80s and continued writing about music for the Guardian and doing theatre criticism for the Observer for the next several years, but found herself getting bored: “I hated being a music writer, and kept wondering why I couldn’t be doing the exciting things that my friends were doing in television,” she said.  She returned to New York and television production. However, it was her early journalistic work on Warhol that helped sow the seeds for her first feature film I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), which explores the life and work of his controversial would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas.
Played with an emphatic fury by Lili Taylor, Harron’s Solanas is multifaceted—a furiously intelligent, deeply troubled and conflicted outsider begging for recognition and acknowledgement. In Harron’s hands, the film asks questions about complicity, sanity and gender while never feeling exploitative. Valerie’s unreliability—as a narrator, as a person trying to exist in the world—situates her as a character to be pitied, to be wary of, and to marvel at. I Shot Andy Warhol was well-received, garnering a special recognition award for Taylor’s performance at Sundance, among others. Harron was now on the map, and her achievements caught the eyes of producers looking for a female director to helm an adaptation of one of the most controversial novels ever written.
Harron first encountered Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho in the early ‘90s while still living in London; she was working on a BBC programme featuring a segment on the book. In a New York Times piece she wrote in 2000, Harron recalled the producer in charge claiming the book was vile; she later discovered the producer had, in fact, not read it. She bought the book, started reading it on the tube, and quickly divined its true nature: “The story of Patrick Bateman, a status-obsessed Wall Street executive who commits frenzied murders in his spare time, was not a slasher novel,” she wrote in The New York Times. “It was a surreal satire, and although many scenes were excruciatingly violent, it was clearly intended as a critique of male misogyny, not an endorsement of it.” 
It’s well known that the film version of American Psycho had a number of male directors and actors attached to it—Oliver Stone, David Cronenberg, Danny Boyle—and most famously, the film’s producers tried to strong-arm Harron into hiring a young and fresh-off-Titanic Leonardo de Caprio to play Patrick Bateman. “I told them that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. He’s not right for the role, and he has a fifteen-year-old-girl fan base,” she told The Believer. Instead, she veered towards Christian Bale. The actor’s then-recent credits—Jesus in a TV movie, a queer glam-rock fanboy in Velvet Goldmine—alone were a testament to his chameleonic qualities. This coupled with Bale’s aquiline, faintly cruel good looks (showcased with such clinical fascination in American Psycho’s early morning ritual scenes) made him an ideal vessel for the character’s combination of arrogance, volatility and thinly-veiled desperation.
For a movie that’s adapted from one of the most reviled books of all time, American Psycho is an elegant model of restraint. Harron co-wrote the script with Guinevere Turner, who had beguiled audiences as writer and star of the 1996 lesbian indie comedy Go Fish (and who also appears in the film as one of Bateman’s socialite friends/victims) and they elected to keep much of the film’s violence offscreen or in shadow. Instead, they focused their energies on highlighting the book’s most ridiculous predilections. This included distilling Ellis' deliberately tedious chapter-length discussions of '80s albums to a few well-timed monologues, used to particular effect in the instant-classic scene of Bateman prattling on about Huey Lewis and the News (while simultaneously zipping up a clear plastic raincoat) before chopping into his wasted colleague and rival Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with an axe. It’s worth mentioning in this scene, too, that Harron executes the tension of the scene as masterfully as any of her capital “H” horror contemporaries, with the tension and absurdity mounting towards Bateman's release: his placid bronze mask drops, he contorts, and we witness—however briefly—the decisive, virile, commanding type of man that he wants to be. Instead of panning over Allen’s ruined corpse, the camera eschews it altogether and lingers on Bateman’s blood-splattered, self-satisfied mug: he chomps on a fancy cigar, celebrating his bad, bad deeds with a symbol of virility and decadence. Later, as we learn about his own unreliability as a narrator, Bateman—like Valerie Solanas—becomes a figure that draws us closer to our own discomfort, as we witness the schadenfreude of his humiliating breakdown. With this hindsight, the ax murder scene becomes something weirder, less tenable; a pitiable scream for recognition.
There is also much attention given to the faces of women in the film, and specifically, their reactions to Bateman and his cohort—disappointment, incredulity, and boredom. Remember the deadened eyes of the two sex workers Bateman brings to his apartment, and their increasing confusion as he yammers on about expensive wine and sheets? What about the perpetually glazed expression of Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), Bateman's oblivious fiancée, as she chatters mindlessly about hiring Annie Leibowitz for their wedding photos—so clearly checked out of her relationship with this shallow, tedious, deeply unpleasant man? The excess in this film is concerned not with gratuitous violence, but with status, and how it bolsters Bateman’s increasingly fragile ego as he grows more alienated from the sources of comfort that have insulated him from his own reality.
Despite the producer’s best efforts to bypass controversy by hiring a female director, the movie got flak both pre-and-post production. In her New York Times piece, Harron recounted how a Canadian activist group called C-Cave (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment) sent out press releases condemning the film for its gratuitous violence. They also warned that the film was based on a book much loved by notorious Canadian serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo, whose life and crimes bore a cursory similarity to Patrick Bateman’s (it was later confirmed that the copy of American Psycho found in Bernardo’s home actually belonged to his wife and accomplice, Karla Homolka). Repeated demonstrations in Toronto forced the production to abandon some downtown sets and improvise others. Upon release, the film split audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, and some critics chose to ignore the film’s virtues, instead wringing their hands over American Psycho’s basic premise (much as many did with Ellis' novel). Some, like the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, even went so far as to accuse Harron of outright misandry (!!!) in her portrayal of such unlikeable male characters. 
The legacy of the film has been kinder. Horror fans in particular seem to acknowledge American Psycho’s spot in the canon, and women horror fans find particular affinity with Harron’s vision of toxic masculinity: truly, the core horror of the film lies in the fact that many women know a Patrick Bateman. “I began to see 'American Psycho' as a scenario of female terror, with Patrick Bateman as, quite literally, the date from hell,” she reflected in the New York Times. “It is the fear of motiveless evil that lies at the heart of all horror movies—and in fairy tales and legends from time immemorial. There is something to be said for bringing those fears to light.” It’s perhaps unsurprising that Harron has gone on to make movies about female violence in the context of patriarchal systems of manipulation and power—first with her adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel about a real-life18th century Ontario murderess, Alias Grace, and in the recently-completed Charlie Says, a biopic about three of Charles Manson’s female followers.
It’s perhaps a bit too easy to link American Psycho to the real-life bad dates, abusers and toxic men outed by the #MeToo movement over the past year, and easier still to link Bateman to the equally cartoonish—and infinitely more dangerous—‘80s relic currently seated in the White House. Like Donald Trump, Bateman’s inner self-hatred spirals outward into thinly-veiled misogyny, classism, homophobia and an overall distaste for anyone marginalized. In many ways he’s the ‘80s spiritual father to today’s buttoned-up, neatly-coiffed right-wingers and 4chan creeps, but he also represents the wider narcissism of a culture obsessed with personal self-worth, self-improvement and the social-media buffered notion of self-aggrandizement via social media. In that sense, we're all (uncomfortably) closer to Bateman's glassy narcissism than any of us realize, as we clamour for recognition and self-identification in an increasingly shrill howl of information, bad news, and relentless scrolling. The true nightmare might be when we go to stare in the mirror during our morning ablutions and realize that like Bateman, our quest to keep up has rendered us utterly numb—that suddenly, we are simply not there.
1. Anise Gross. "Mary Harron." The Believer, March/April 2014.
3. Mary Harron. "The Risky Territory of American Psycho." The New York Times, April 2000.
4. Kenneth Turan. "A 'Psycho' Carves Path From Novel to Screen." Los Angeles Times, April 2000.
Alison Lang is a writer and editor based in Toronto. For several years she edited Broken Pencil Magazine, a publication dedicated to zine culture and the independent arts. She has written about Alanis Morrissette and female rage for the Toronto Star, cannibalism and grief for TIFF.net, feminist death-positive morticians for Rue Morgue Magazine and wrote a chapter on Geraldo Rivera's Devil Worship TV special for the bestselling anthology Satanic Panic: Pop-Culture Paranoia in the 1980s. She is the author and editor of Women with Guts, a book of interviews and essays about horror heroines in TV, film and print and has presented on horror movies and feminism for the Ax Wound Film Festival (Vermont) and the DePaul Pop Culture Conference (Chicago). You can follow her on Twitter at womenandsong666 and her website is womenandsongs666.com.
Additional Resources on Mary Harron
Bibliography of Further Reading
Bastien, Anjelica Jade. "The Female Gaze of 'American Psycho': How Mary Harron Made Fantasy Into Timeless Satire." The Village Voice, June 2016.
Blevins, Joe. "How Mary Harron Made a Feminist Film Out of American Psycho." The A/V Club, June 2016.
Sullivan, Chris. "Mary Harron: The Notorious Queen of Cool." The Independent, June 2006.
Dali Land, pre-production, director
Charlie Says, 2018 (post-production), director
Alias Grace (miniseries), 2017, director
We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can't Afford to Miss (Documentary), 2014, director (segment "This Won't Hurt a Bit")
Anna Nicole (TV movie), 2013, director
Armani (short film), 2012, director
The Moth Diaries, 2011, director
Sonnet for a Towncar (short film), 2010, co-director
Holding Fast (short film), 2008, co-director
The Notorious Bettie Page, 2005, director
American Psycho, 2000, director
I Shot Andy Warhol, 1996, director
Winds of Change (TV movie documentary), 1994, director
The Late Show (TV series documentary), 1988, director
Except where indicated, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.