"American Psycho," the novel about an '80s Wall Street warrior who literally kills after-hours, proved to be a dangerous book when it was released in 1991. A man who confessed to having read and enjoyed it may as well have copped to a weakness for kiddie porn. A woman who reported liking it might've found herself urged into a battered women's shelter. For either gender, it was a serious risk to your dinner invitations merely to leave this book out in plain sight.

Like most people, I played it safe. Following the response of horrified critics everywhere (and Simon & Schuster, Ellis' original publisher, which killed the book shortly before publication, fearing it was too offensive), I refused to touch it. And if anyone asked, I said, "You mean the movie with Anthony Perkins?"

But curiosity eventually got the best of me, and four years later I bought a copy at a used bookstore. I was completely unprepared for the shock that awaited me--a laugh-out-loud comedy of manners that didn't involve a single murder for the first 130 pages. And when the murders came, yeah, they were graphic and disturbing, but they were also wickedly appropriate. Patrick Bateman, the antihero, may be a serial killer, but he's a serial killer who worships Donald Trump, fumes when colleagues have nicer business cards, and rhapsodizes about Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All": "It's one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity." Bret Easton Ellis, I decided, had been judged unfairly.

Fortunately, his novel may get a second chance with the release of Mary Harron's visually stunning, wonderfully written film version. It's hard to imagine a 97-minute movie offering a more satisfying adaptation of Ellis' 400-page book.

Harron sets us immediately in Ellis' disorienting world. As the opening credits roll to haunting music, blood drips against the background. Or is it blood? The camera pulls back to reveal that it's actually a raspberry curry sauce being added to an elegant dish at an exclusive restaurant. Then the camera shifts to a table of four young men, impeccably groomed and dressed, straight out of GQ. Could one of these guys be the monster of the title? Their conversation is typical '80s Wall Street, Y-chromosome banter--chicks, coke, their damned rivals. When the remarks turn uglier, one of the guys urges the others to "cool it with the anti-Semitic remarks." That's Patrick Bateman, "the voice of reason," as friends call him, "the boy next door."

Several scenes later, "the boy next door" slips on a raincoat so he can swing an ax into the skull of a loathsome co-worker, Paul Allen, without getting blood on his Armani suit.

Truth is, no one in the film really knows Patrick Bateman, played with perfect cool and creepiness by Christian Bale. Paul Allen mistook him for someone named Marcus Halberstam, a blunder that may have partly cost Allen his life. His secretary, Jean (Chloe Sevigny), thinks he's adorable (he aims a staple gun at the back of her head). The prostitutes he picks up think he is Paul Allen, the name he gives them. His girlfriend, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), thinks he's a devoted fiancé (he suddenly dumps her: "You're not really important to me"). Bateman himself isn't quite sure who or what he is: "I have all the characteristics of a human being--flesh, blood, skin, hair--but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside me, but I don't know why." Well, for starters, Patrick, you might consider your daily consumption of drugs, porno, slasher flicks, and bad pop tunes.

Ultimately, Bateman's spiral into madness and mayhem becomes so unreal (there's very little actual violence, or sex, in the movie), that you wonder if any killing is really happening or whether it's all just in his head. You never know; the story is told from Bateman's point of view, as it is in the book. But it doesn't matter. Killer or not, he's definitely a psycho.

But Bateman's deeper problem, both Harron's film and Ellis's novel suggest, is that he lives entirely in a world--money-mad Wall Street--in which nothing one says or does matters as long as one maintains appearances: a tony address, designer wardrobe, tight abs. (And to think, all this in a decade when a show such as "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" was unimaginable.) Bateman's world is so morally bankrupt that he seems to say and do whatever crosses his mind, not because he particularly wants to, but because he has nothing internally or externally to stop him.

Harron doesn't preach here. Rather, she uses scene after scene to skewer the society that's oblivious to the monster Bateman has become. Even when Bateman confesses his dark side, no one listens; they're all too self-involved. "I like to dissect girls," he tells Paul Allen. "Did you know I'm utterly insane?" His doomed colleague replies, "Uh, great tan, Marcus." Bateman axes Allen moments later with palpable relish. In short, Bateman's picture-perfect but empty world is driving him nuts, yet he wouldn't trade it for anything.

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