A Triple Take on American Psycho

Visual Only-

The opening is simply a shot of the man sitting on a chair, there is little action occurring but the scene is well balanced. Everything seems simplified and clean, from the mans sharp outfit to the empty bottle and unopened cigar on either side of the man. Although his expression and slouched posture give the impression that he is uninterested, the scene seems very sterile and tense.
Even as the main character looks over to someone out of frame, the camera and focus remains on him. The full view of the second man in the room is delayed slightly during the take, creating minute suspense. When the second man comes into view, he appears confident and his movements are quick, appearing contrived and planned. The man’s confidence is even more clear as he watched himself in the mirror.
Several times in the clip, the camera pans so that it focuses directly on inanimate objects. First on the CD case, then the glass and prescription and then again on the shiny metal ax head.
Without dialogue, it’s difficult to understand the context of the scene, but the man with the ax seems to be shifting between moods. He is confident in the beginning, then suddenly he dances around the room, seeming jovial but slightly insane. As he begins to wield the ax, his presence becomes somewhat threatening, his demeanor is suddenly much heavier and intense.
The choice to show only the killers face as he murders the first man with the ax was a powerful means of showing both the man’s insanity as well as the intensity with which he carries out the action. His face is full of rage, and each motion is deliberate.
At the end of the scene, the killer is positioned so that the blood on one side of his face is completely hidden, giving the audience the view of a seemingly normal man. I assume that this was to further convey the impression that the man shifts from murderous to normal member of society rapidly and without warning. In the final angle change, the murderer is shown sitting in an armchair just like the victim had been sitting in moments earlier, smoking the cigar. The camera angle is from below, looking up at the murderer from the dead body. While the murder is casual and calm, the view from the dead body instills an overwhelming sense of dread.
Interestingly, the murderer is always in the background whenever he is in the same frame as the victim. According to Roger Ebert, this conveys a dominance to the victim. However, when the killer is alone, the camera angles are mostly focused on his face, there are not many elements surrounding him preventing distraction from his intense expressions. During the actual murder, the camera angle is shot from below, similar to the style often seen in Quentin Tarantino films, giving the audience a point of view that lies to the left of the victim as he is murdered.

Audio Only-

The first and only sound of a CD player in the clip precedes the first voice, a confident and optimistic sounding man that is a stark contrast to the second voice which sounds lethargic and tired. I assume that the confident sounding man is the murderer. Just as he appears in the beginning of the video, the murderer’s dialogue seems very much scripted and unnatural, though confident.
The sound effects are limited to the natural sounds of the scene (which I’m sure were enhanced by a Foley artist). The sound of the CD going into the player, the case being set down and the footsteps of the murderer are very clear and loud, taking up as many decibels of volume as the dialogue seems to. Interestingly, the scene goes on with a discussion of the musician on the CD without the music playing. The sound of shuffling feet and a jacket being pulled on competes with the clarity of the other sound effects from earlier on.
As the murderer continues speaking, his pace quickens and he sounds more and more excited. The interchange between the two characters is brief and the victim does not sound worried, rather he still sounds tired and slightly perplexed. When the music starts playing, the murderer sounds increasingly unnatural in his speech, and his footsteps are still clearly audible over the music. It is unclear whether the scream came from the killer or the victim. The sounds of the ax hitting the victim are dull but have a very visceral effect, the sound of blood splatter is not excessive allowing the whole scene to remain realistic.
Finally, when the man is dead the murderer can be heard returning to his seat, again the small sounds like the click of the lighter and the exhale of cigar smoke can be heard over the extremely loud music. The song that played throughout the duration of the scene is jovial and fast paced, contrasting with the severity and darkness of the scene that just unfolded.

Audio and Visual Together-

I did not expect the combination of video and audio to give me a new and distinct interpretation of this scene from American Psycho, but there are several aspects of this film that were not apparent to me until the two media were united.
As the movement and the dialogue of the murderer are put together, he seems to lack seriousness. Everything again seems pre-coordinated and he seems even more frightening.
I did not initially recognize that the victim isn’t tired or legthargic, rather he’s intoxicated. I should have been clued in by the empty liquor bottle in the scene, but his movement is not clearly drunken and his tone simply appears tired.
By bringing together audio and visual I also realized that the murderer moves his hands in unison with the breaks between words. He moves and speaks emphatically in coordination, emphasizing his excitement for what he is about to do.
Although it’s now clear that the murderer was the one who produced the scream at the end, I still can’t fully discern what is said immediately after the first strike of the ax. The only word I can hear clearly is “extortion.” When the sound of the ax is combined with each strike against the body of the victim, the murder is even more disturbing and realistic.

One Reply to “A Triple Take on American Psycho”

  1. I like that you included Roger Ebert’s concept of dominance when the murderer is in the same frame as the victim. That’s a connection I missed watching the clip the first time. Awesome job!

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