Inception (2010)/American Psycho (2000)

Director: Christopher Nolan/Mary Harron

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The big movie of the 2010 summer season, by amount of attention paid, seems to be Inception. This latest outing by the man who set the cinematic world on fire with his mind-bending mystery Memento (2000) and left fanboys panting with devotion in 2008 with The Dark Knight, his version of the Batman myth, has critics and the general public admiring it as the blockbuster with a brain. Isn’t it nice, they say, to actually walk out of an action film with something to think about?

I must say that I’m a bit dumbfounded by this reaction. “What could they be thinking about?” I ask myself. It’s possible, I suppose, that some of the archetypal images Nolan used in the film, for example, the malevolent anima represented by main protagonist Cobb’s “wife” Mal (French for “bad”) or the fortress that represents the Self of Cobb’s supposed target Robert Fischer, could have reacted with unconscious material in the male audience’s mind. As a woman, I wouldn’t react to an anima image, so I readily admit to a built-in block toward a kind of thinking this film could generate.

And is it inherently more intriguing to think that you can, as Roger Ebert put it, think your way into a dream than, say, being plugged into the hive mind of the Borg in Star-Trek or fight the soma-like virtual reality created by the machines in The Matrix? Say, aren’t those Matrix agents kind of just like the “projections” that attack Cobb and his team in Inception? Well, that’s another argument for another day.

Personally, I don’t think people are using their post-movie think time to consider the possibilities of the unconscious, the richness of dream material in understanding ourselves and our world, or any other larger implications that could arise from such a film. Sadly, Nolan has contented himself to enter the realm of the psyche as though it were merely a soundstage to film yet another loud, crashing movie. So I think the only thing Inception accomplishes in the way of thought is encouraging audiences to figure out what really happened. Did Cobb and his team succeed in their mission to plant an idea in Fischer’s psyche, or did the entire movie happen in Cobb’s head? Most people concede that Nolan’s dreamscape doesn’t resemble real dreaming, and assumptions the film makes, for instance, that lucid dreaming actually exists, are open to debate. (Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz contends that dreamers believe they are consciously controlling something the psyche was doing on its own anyway.) Nonetheless, a movie can make its own rules as long as they don’t have too many internal inconsistencies and don’t stretch the suspension of disbelief too far. That the ambiguous ending of Inception is neither disturbing to consider nor particularly memorable speaks to just how modest the film’s ambitions are—and how overblown its reception has been.

A film that debuted the same year as Memento and that was as mysterious and involved in the inner workings of the mind as that movie was American Psycho. Based on the 1991 notoriously violent book of the same name by flavor du jour writer of the East Coast literati, Bret Easton Ellis, the film was a disappointment at the box office—perhaps backlash to the perceived misogyny of the book—and faded from view. Yet, the genuinely disturbing implications of that blackly comic film have a heft and longevity that the humorlessly drab imaginings of the mind of Nolan will never approach.

The confusion American Psycho plants is much more subtle and, therefore, more powerful. Patrick Bateman, a narcissistic 27-year-old graduate of Harvard and its business school, works on Wall Street, dates graduates from the Seven Sisters colleges who couldn’t figure their way out of a paper bag, and competes with his peers over everything from the look of their business cards to the size and location of their apartments. Driven crazy by the supposed perfection of the business card of colleague Paul Allen, Bateman gets him drunk, takes him home with him, puts on a CD of Huey Lewis and the News, and hacks him to pieces with an axe. When several of his colleagues catch him stuffing the body, now encased in a two-suiter, into his car, one of them asks Bateman where he got the luggage. “Jean-Paul Gauthier,” says Bateman, relieved that they hadn’t questioned him about what was inside it.

Indeed, what’s inside doesn’t count for anything to the characters in this movie, forming the flipside to the philosophy of Inception that ideas can only take hold if the person believes they have come from within. However, American Psycho takes its cynicism about the manipulation of identity seriously, whereas Inception, whether or not you believe Cobb’s mission was real, suggests that brainwashing in service of a noble cause—in this case, breaking up a monopoly that could concentrate control of virtually all the natural resources of the world in a single man’s hands—is the right thing to do. Much of the thrilling suspense Inception offers comes from our fear that our heroes will be “killed” in the dream and stuck like Sleeping Beauty in something called limbo forever.

In American Psycho, barely perceptible differences in various black-type, whitish-paper business cards form a literal case of life and death. The derisive laughter of a woman at Bateman’s impassioned treatise on the depth of Whitney Houston’s music dooms her as well. Bateman represents a type for whom marketing has become gospel to such an extent that he convinces himself of the profundity of the superficial. He complains, for example, that a hooker he has picked up for an evening threesome is not drinking his very fine chardonnay without even realizing that labeling a wine by the grape used to make it is a generics marketing strategy of recent vintage that disassociates the product from the producer.

In both Inception and American Psycho, the central character starts to lose control of himself. Cobb can’t keep thoughts of Mal out of the engineered dreams of his team, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by the imaginary people Fischer deploys like white corpuscles to rid his mind of their foreign presence; Bateman can’t control his irritation with people and finds himself in the throes of an uncontrollable bloodlust that will see him shoot, chainsaw, eat, blow up, and dismember, by his own count, 20 or more people. Yet, it is the original murder of Allen that has him the most worried about getting away with his crimes, as a police detective has been snooping into that one. We can see a rough correspondence between Bateman’s guilt over Allen and Cobb’s guilt over causing the death of his wife.

Yet, Mary Harron implicates the audience in Bateman’s nightmare by allowing us many moments of black humor to distance us from his sickening deeds. Bateman’s dissertation-like dissection of the lyrics of a lot of catchy, meaningless tunes (“Take the lyrics to ‘Land of Confusion.’ In this song, Phil Collins addresses the problems of abusive political authority.”) while giving orders to two prostitutes is one of several comic vignettes bordering on genius, recreating the bread and circuses of the 1980s that distracted citizens (“don’t worry, be happy”) and allowed radical conservatives to begin their assault on America’s political, financial, and social landscape. She reinforces the madness of that assault and the delusions that clouded our judgment by presenting a final nighttime action sequence, complete with exploding cars and shattering plate-glass windows, and then making us wonder if Bateman hasn’t been imagining everything we’ve just seen. His nearly incomprehensible conversation with a man he made a rambling confession to over the phone may be entirely in his head, or his very identity and life as Bateman may be fictitious.

The final lines of the film coming to us from the go-go 80s are portentous of where we are today: “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, but even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. My punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.” Thanks to the deft handling of this despicable story by Mary Harron, the confession is hardly meaningless. Bateman’s desperate grasping at externals has driven him to a psychotic break, one, she seems to suggest, we may all be headed toward if we don’t find ourselves in time.

Inception’s final moments are simply a plot twist that may involve a person to whom we have never been properly introduced who has, perhaps, solved a personal problem we can’t trust is even real. And/or he perhaps really has saved the world from a dangerous corporate monopoly through some kind of scifi magic no one can take seriously. This is not progress of thought or introspection. As we shoot impotently into the giant maw of international corporate rule, it looks like the Batemans have won.

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:01 pm

    You know, if I wrote that The Dark Knight review today I’d be far less kind to it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:06 pm

    Really? Why?

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:26 pm

    When I watched it the second time the shoddiness of the editing and story development really came home, the failure of the story to add up to anything like the substance it was aiming for was much more apparent, and the pallid human elements all too obvious. Nolan really shits me as a filmmaker.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:29 pm

    I think his movies look lousy. Inception is visually dull and unimaginative. I tried to watch TDK once, but it felt so long and tedious to me.

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:32 pm

    Totally agree. I still admire Ledger’s, Gyllenhaal’s, and Eckhart’s work in TDK, but the film beyond them is a dead loss.

  • Greg F spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:37 pm

    Great review but I haven’t seen Inception yet so I can’t comment there. But I have seen American Psycho, several times and, as the hoary old cliche goes, it just gets better and better. Except, it really does get better and better. I think it’s one of the overlooked great movies of the 2000’s so far. Its study of Patrick Bateman is a sad statement on a culture so obsessed with the external it has no knowledge of the internal.

    Another thing that kind of fascinates me with American Psycho is how at several points, like in the opening where he removes his facial cleanser mask, the narration explicitly outliness the theme of the film and it doesn’t feel blunt or unnecessary. It’s a neat trick and I’m not sure how Harron pulled it off so well but she did! It’s like Bateman understands his vapidity but is powerless to overcome it.

  • Greg F spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 10:56 pm

    And you two need avatars. It’s your blog for goodness sake and I’m the one with the comment avatar!

  • Helena spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 2:28 am

    Dear Marilyn,

    I did come out of the cinema thinking, but I was thinking, why do I get the feeling that was complete balderdash (and then my brain went into overdrive as I enumerated the reasons)? You’ve not only stated succinctly why Inception is such a mediocre piece of cinema, you have persuaded me to watch American Psycho, a film I would never have considered watching before. Actually, you and Rod do this with just about every piece you write, so, well, thanks!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 8:15 am

    “So I think the only thing Inception accomplishes in the way of thought is encouraging audiences to figure out what really happened. Did Cobb and his team succeed in their mission to plant an idea in Fischer’s psyche, or did the entire movie happen in Cobb’s head? Most people concede that Nolan’s dreamscape doesn’t resemble real dreaming, and assumptions the film makes, for instance, that lucid dreaming actually exists, are open to debate.”

    Well, Marilyn, I agree with this qualification, and am still unsure I can approach this film with anything close to a firm interpretation. I liked it more than I did any other Nolan film (I never cared much for MEMENTO, and like Rod, I have mostly soured on THE DARK KNIGHT) but I’ll admit I was equally exaserbated as I was enthralled. Only at the end was there anything close to emotional resonance, and even then it was rather fleeting. Yet, because Mr. Nolan had the courage to venture out into these deep waters I give him credit, and there’s some cerebral here that for all its seeming narrative convolutions could connect on repeat viewing.

    A great idea here in connecting these two films on the various counts you propose, and I am pretty much with you on AMERICAN PSYCHO.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 8:16 am

    Helena – Thank you for the compliment and for letting me know that your thoughts mirrored my own after seeing Inception. Ironically, my husband was the one who was extremely skeptical about American Psycho – he’s a big horror fan – and I had to persuade him to watch it. He loved it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 8:33 am

    Sam , I appreciate that many people like a good brain teaser. Unless it’s an Agatha Christie type of mystery, I’m not one of them. This quote from Luis Bunuel about sums it up for me: “All this compulsion to ‘understand’ everything fills me with horror.”

    What was really horrible for me yesterday was sitting in a theatre waiting for a play to begin, and overhearing a conversation between two young women about 2001: A Space Odyssey. One had just seen it and said the beginning was really slow and the end she didn’t understand. “I liked the part with HAL the best.” They both said how much they hate intermissions in movies and then enthused that 2010 explains what happened in 2001. It was all I could do not to turn around and asked them why they don’t find the mystery and grandeur of the universe beautiful and why solving it would make them feel so much better.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 8:43 am

    Hahahahaha on that 2001 conversation. And I love that answer you gave them!

    As far as Dame Agatha, now there is someone I stand with you lock, stock and barrel! That is the kind of brain tease I like best too! Leave it to Bunuel to come up with that. That’s a classic quote!!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 9:31 am

    Well, I didn’t say anything to them. I’ve learned from sad experience not to intrude on conversations that were not meant to include me. Plus I didn’t want to have any bad vibes going into the play – a partially staged reading of “For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf”. Excellent, excellent performance.

  • J.D. spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 10:13 am

    I think you and Rod are being a tad harsh on Nolan’s films. I think that they are particularly stunning looking and his last two – THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION have a particular Michael Mann-esque sheen to them that I totally dig.

    Anyways, it’s weird that you mentioned AMERICAN PSYCHO. I have been rewatching it as of late in prep for an article I’m working on about it. The film is quite amazing in its razor sharp satire of 1980s materialism and I love how Mary Harron filters this all through a detached, Kubrickian stance. I would argue that AP is on par with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in terms of adapting what was considered an unfilmable book and being successful in commenting on society and our culture. Not to mention it is Christian Bale’s best performance to date. Every time I see him dressed up as Bruce Wayne in the Batman films I keep getting flashbacks to AP and hope that he’ll suddenly break in to a critique of Phil Collins’ solo work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 10:26 am

    JD – We’ll have to differ on the look of Nolan’s films. I see the Mann comparison, but like everything else about Nolan, he seems to make designer knock-offs.

    Total agreement about American Psycho. Harron is just one of the most brilliant directors working today. She deserves an Oscar every bit as much as Bigelow. She brought something really unique out of Bale that I can’t remember seeing in any of his other performances. His smoldering resentment and ridiculous lies were brilliant little vignettes.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 2:10 pm

    Also: the original star of American Psycho was going to be Leonardo DiCaprio (and the director was going to be Oliver Stone). Coincidence? I think not 😉

    My favorite of Christian Bale’s performances is still his Empire of the Sun performance–he captures so well that gullibility of a child lost in wartime whose imagination is beginning to play tricks on him. I like American Psycho as well, although I’ve been hesitant to be truly enamored with it probably because a lot of kids from my high school were obsessed with it for the dumb, sick, generic reasons (they were in love with stuff like Fight Club in much the same way). And I’m just not sure if the film’s commentaries about the 1980’s actually ever got through to the greedy capitalists who lived through that time: did they see in the book/film a damning critique of themselves, or just an entertaining serial killer pic?

    Mary Harron is a unique filmmaker, however, and from what I’ve seen of her Bettie Page movie on television, I’ve been really impressed with it. Sooner or later I need to check out I Shot Andy Warhol; I’ve heard so little about it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 2:30 pm

    Adam, I don’t think the M&A execs cared about their empty souls as long as they were making money. They’d probably prefer repeat viewings of Wall Street. A film doesn’t have to get through to its target, and frequently doesn’t. It was a warning to the rest of us.

    I Shot Andy Warhol is a creepy movie in which Lili Taylor gives a very dark performance. All her manic energy is channeled into her very sick character. It’s must viewing, in my opinion.

  • Greg F spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 8:31 pm

    Completely ignored. I’m never commenting here again.

  • Rod spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 10:48 pm

    No Greg, no! I’ll get an avatar! I’ll paint myself blue!

  • David Fiore spoke:
    2nd/08/2010 to 11:20 pm

    thanks so much Marilyn–I had been planning to write something about the banality of Inception/Nolan… but you’ve given us the definitive piece on that subject

    also–you’ve inspired me to revisit American Psycho, which I liked a lot (and a lot more than the book) back when it came out

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/08/2010 to 9:00 am

    Greg – I don’t know how Harron does it either. She’s a genius, in my opinion. And I’m not sure how the avatars work here. It seems you have to have a Blogger account for them to appear. It’s not a big deal to me.

    David – Definitive? Wow! Thanks for the compliment.

  • Shane spoke:
    3rd/08/2010 to 9:41 am

    It warms my cockles to read how many of you share the view of banality and insipid assumptions Inception offered. Rod, having just given in to my desire , probably self-flagellation, to watch TDK I couldn’t agree more. It’s offering was dry and cardboardy to me..probably should have had a good musical critique to liven it a bit. Adam. you are of course in a different place than those of your group. Obviously you can only take solace in the idea that there are those who may find you after listening to your take on things. My daughter is one who I thought for years as a Gen X’er was lost to meaningful dialog on movies…boy was I wrong! So keep your heart and give them a chance someone may surprise you.
    As Marilyn pointed out I dug American Psycho…a lot! Giving me a hard character study and then mixing in the murderous intent proved how much more confident Ms. Harron is in her craft than Nolan. It wasn’t necessary to knock our socks off from the beginning with sight work but rather in establishing the real ground we’re going to be covering…the mindset of the group of cads who will be our main course for the evening. This done we are taken on a totally believable ride which Mr. Nolan only wishes he could offer. Maybe someday but somehow I doubt it. The difference between them is so distant I find it hard to believe those of his ilk will even deign to consider such a leap. I’m glad we will always need the Nolans of the world to satisfy as Adam puts it his high school friends looking for gratuitous sex and violence. After all they keep the coffers full enough so that the talented few have a chance…..

  • metabradley spoke:
    3rd/08/2010 to 9:50 am

    maybe you are aiming too high, or want to think too much.
    maybe when they said “Isn’t it nice to actually walk out of an action film with something to think about?” they meant in comparison to: the James Bond series, Rocky or The A-Team.
    the implication of the statement your argument is based upon is that they did not have very much to think about but it was still more than they expect of the genre.
    non-the-less, your article is very well written and i agree with you more than my comments would let on.
    plus, i may eat my own words as i haven’t seen Inception yet!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/08/2010 to 10:32 am

    Shane – I actually wanted less believability from Inception because it made the dreams so undreamlike. The truth is that only our own dreams are truly meaningful, so why not indulge in the fantastic in a movie that posits a truly fantastical premise.

    Meta – I honestly didn’t get what people had to think about, so I didn’t see how this movie was such a cut above any other action film. Nonetheless, if it made some moviegoers happy, who am I to argue that they shouldn’t feel what they do. I’m only trying to suggest that the bar on our definition of real substance has gotten dangerously low.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/08/2010 to 7:42 am

    What a great comment thread!!!

    Well deserved in light of this stupendous piece.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    4th/08/2010 to 10:55 am

    Marilyn: Have you seen this piece on the generation gap regarding Inception? I still haven’t seen the film yet, but there may be something to it as the structure, as I understand it, resembles a video game more than a dream.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/08/2010 to 11:51 am

    Peter, there’s no question that it works like a video game. That struck me immediately about it, and may have something to do with why everyone is so concentrated on figuring it out. I’m not sure that amounts to a generation gap – more a gamer/nongamer gap.

  • larry aydlette spoke:
    5th/08/2010 to 11:55 am

    I think his movies look lousy. Inception is visually dull and unimaginative.

    Amen. That’s my big problem with Inception, and his other movies. He doesn’t know how to cut his images and he has no sense of where to place the camera. I think he’s a really bad director. There is no comparison to Mann, who knows what he’s doing even if you don’t agree with his choices.

  • Yuri spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 7:51 am

    Yup, Inception was a big ‘Meh’, I was hoping a more rich movie since Nolan’s last work in Shutter Island.

    But I think that Inception is more a ‘typical action movie’ and ‘popcorn’ than The Dark Knight (more action, less knowledge about the characters).

    Where American Psycho has more meat beneath the ‘action’ scenes. Practically, you spend all the movie knowing more about Bateman, something that doesn’t happen with Inception.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 9:15 am

    Yuri – I agree, and I don’t think Nolan was aiming high. It’s the reaction of critics who call this a thriller with a brain that I wonder about. BTW, Shutter Island was the work of Martin Scorsese.

  • Chris spoke:
    11th/09/2011 to 10:08 am

    Like others I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your observations about Inception. I did come out of it thinking though. Thinking; “I just spent 10 bucks on that?” Setting aside the well-discussed fact that there’s nothing in Inception that seems even remotely dreamlike, the antiseptic nature to everything Nolan touches and the overwrought performances (“Cut! Who told you you could smile?”) the major bone I have to pick with Nolan is that both TDK and Inception take place largely in urban settings yet where are the people? In TDK Gotham residents appear almost exclusively in situations with well defined borders. In Inception, while there are admittedly more humanoids visible, they’re mostly relegated to a kind of zombie status, defending the dreamers subconscious. Shooting only the principals works fine if the stage is limited but if you’re shooting BIG you can’t just say “clear the city so we can shoot” and expect the end result to resonate with those of us who live in the real world. Even “Okay, bring in the synaptic zombies so we can shoot” doesn’t resonate unless you’re making a zombie pic. You want to know how to shoot big AND include the human race Christopher? Check out some Ridley Scott films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/09/2011 to 10:29 am

    Chris – Thanks for stopping by. It’s not like I want to defend Nolan, but these films are fantasies. When dealing with a comic book movie, it’s often a strategy for the filmmaker to take inspiration from the comic panel, which can’t be filled with people. As for Inception, again, it’s a dream and can be anything the dreamer wants, including a city relatively denuded of human beings. Still, I appreciate your point of view.

  • Chris spoke:
    11th/09/2011 to 11:03 am

    First let me say: love the site.
    I think a film maker shooting on a four block long section of street in downtown Chicago in IMAX sort of relinquishes any claims that he’s being true to comic book framing and therefore hidebound by that medium’s strictures/canonical norms. Film is its own medium with its own rules. You can’t hide behind the excuse that you were only following comic book orders. It doesn’t hold up. Re: Inception. If Nolan wanted me to believe these were dream worlds and therefore capable of being anything the dreamer wanted (even depopulated) then he should have put a little effort into making them look and feel like dream worlds.
    But these are just my pet peeves. I think your analysis is first rate and and juxtaposing Inception with American Psycho is a stoke of some sort of genius (evil perhaps?).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/09/2011 to 11:39 am

    Chris – Ha ha! Evil, maybe, but it’s how my strange mind works. And I’m in total agreement about Inception – he didn’t bother to create a dream world, which is why I went to see it in the first place. As for TDK, I guess I took it as a rather noirish kind of film, lonely. I wasn’t especially bothered by the lack of authenticity, but to each their own.

    And thanks for your compliments. They really do make my day.

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