Some scenes are adept at not just moving the action forward, but also perfectly summing up every facet of a character in such a way, that they can be viewed totally out of context aside from the film, and still have the same impact.
The business card scene in American Psycho is a great example. Not only does it perfectly convey the sentiment of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, but also reveals all the complex layers of Patrick Bateman’s psyche in just 3 minutes.
Bateman is unhinged. He is detached from a world with which he has lost interest and hates viscerally. There are comparisons with Travis Bickle, in that he too looks in disgust at the the human waste littering the city streets. But unlike De Niro’s iconic character, Bateman is as apathetic as he is apoplectic. In the book he wonders if he “were an actual automaton, would there really be a difference”, and yet to see him sweat and fume about each new business card presented to him, is to see that he really does have very strong feelings (as insane as they may be).
In a world that has been over saturated with capitalism and greed it seems that looking good is all Patrick’s public persona has to live for. We see this in his workout routine and his fastidiously constructed opinions on popular music. But here in the office, as Paul Allen, Timothy Bryce et al. show round their new contact cards we see it like nowhere else in the film.
Until this point he has been a narrator. He has explained what makes him look so good, and in fact makes it quite obvious he ‘knows’ he’s the best of his peers. But with each new font, colour, embossment, he shudders and squirms with inadequacy. He is intensely aware that he has been outdone in matters of the superficial. It is this that makes his “mask of sanity start to slip”.
Of course this is the point of the novel; the social commentary that says our possessions and capitalistic posturing are the only things that make us human any more. As a people we lack substance and any real historical importance, so we place all ideas of success on fame, fortune, a bigger house than the next guy etc.
Ironically then, despite Bateman’s seemingly over-the-top reaction to his colleagues’ new business cards, it is this scene that shows him at his most human. He is most like the majority of us in this moment, because he shows us his envy. He is suddenly very much attached to the world and it visibly hurts him.
Not long after this (SPOILER ALERT) he takes an axe to Paul Allen in quite extravagant style. The true psycho comes out; the man whose anger and apathy come together in perfect harmony to enable him to exact the most horrific acts whilst unable to feel remorse. I feel the above scene is what leads to this moment. It is the catalyst that lets the cat out of the bag, inevitably leading to his downfall.
I love both the book and film of American Psycho, for different reasons. But in both I love this scene equally. It is the deconstruction of a person. You see layers peel back and reveal the true monster within. Taken literally it is something silly, pathetic even, but thematically it is brutal. It is the perfect metaphor for the Wall Street world Bateman inhabits and the perfect display of all his disturbing facets.