In the two decades since its release, Mary Harron’s American Psycho has become a cult classic. One of its most iconic scenes out of many is the “Hip to Be Square” moment where the psychopathic Patrick Bateman puts on a tape of Huey Lewis and the News’ peppy song and gleefully murders his arch-nemesis. The pop anthem structures the scene as the crescendo of Bateman’s bloodlust; although he commits many murders throughout the film, Paul Allen is his white whale and he relishes finally killing him.
The scene opens with an inebriated and barely conscious Allen spread out on Patrick’s sheet-covered couch. Newspapers are sprawled across the floor. Holding out the CD jewel case, Patrick asks Allen if he likes Huey Lewis and the News, then starts waxing poetic about the band’s craft: “Their early work was a little too new wave for my taste. But when Sports came out in ’83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically.”
He saunters into the bathroom with high, energetic precision and delivers his speech with an artificially uplifting voice like a deranged motivational speaker. During this monologue, you can clearly see how actor Christian Bale emulates Tom Cruise’s manic energy—his inspiration for the role. While putting on a trendy Barneys raincoat, Bateman continues his monologue in the mirror, giving himself a hard stare. “The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost,” he excitedly continues.
Harron cuts to Allen spaced out on the couch while Bateman does a strange backward moonwalk dance behind him; he carries an ax and continues his soliloquy: “He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor”—a sense of humor that he admires because it’s quite like his own, illustrated in this scene.
Allen, who has been confusing Bateman for a fellow Wall Street worker named Halberstram the entire time, (mixed-up names are a running joke throughout the film, demonstrating the homogeneity of the cold, capitalistic 1980s culture and Wall Street milieu) questions him about the newspapers and finally notices his raincoat, but Bateman just saunters over to his high-tech stereo machine, clicks the play button, and points to the song in a comically smooth, precise manner. He continues to speak in a robotic yet high-energy affectation that reeks of snobbishness. “In ’87, Huey released this; Fore!, their most accomplished album,” he shouts as the dynamic opening smash of drums and guitars blares.
At the end of the line, “I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip To Be Square,’” Bateman does a little dance, shimmying back towards where he left his ax. He picks up his ax and continues his monologue, his voice escalating in excitement not only about the meticulous details of Huey Lewis and the News’ artistic merit but also about the fact that he is finally going to murder Allen.
Harron frames this moment from a lower angle, placing the viewer in a subjugated position with Bateman hovering above us while he holds the threat of death in his hands. His rambling thesis about innocuous pop music goes on: “A song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends. It’s also a personal statement about the band itself.”
For Patrick, the song reflects his own desperate desires to conceal his identity in order to be “square” and fit in. Scenes of Wall Street camaraderie: the infamous business card sequence, the interchangeable men in suits, and the confusion of names all exemplify the overwhelming sameness of Bateman’s environment and his intense need to assimilate while also achieving perfection. Similar to the lyrics, Patrick watches what he eats and obsessively works out, sculpting his ideal body with the terrifying sounds of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the background to motivate him. Bateman rattles off these vapid and overly detailed monologues to prove that he is savvy and chic. He attempts to sound passionate about the subject of music in order to disguise his vacuous interior.
“Hey, Paul!” Bateman shouts, then Harron cuts to Allen turning around. We see Allen’s horrifying last image of Bateman’s manic screaming face before he hacks into him, the blood splattering his moisturized face and see-through raincoat. “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!” Bateman screams, referring to the coveted restaurant that has been rejecting him, as he continues to forcefully hack into Allen’s off-screen flesh. While he does this, Huey Lewis’ jaunty song continues to play, motivating his wild fury. The lyrics “You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t even care,” could be Bateman’s own thoughts as he completes this murder in order to be valued amongst his peers.
The upbeat song continues as Bateman takes off his jacket to reveal his pristine suit still intact. He smooths his hair and lights a cigar. Harron focuses on Bateman’s Janus face: one side is covered with blood while the other remains clean, representing the immaculate self he presents to the world and the monster inside. He smooths his hair and lights a cigar. Harron cuts from the close-ups of Bateman to Allen’s body on the floor and Bateman proudly sitting in the chair like a hunter claiming his latest trophy for the mantle.
The juxtaposition of such a violent murder set to sugary, buoyant pop music in an upscale yet sterile space with washed-out lighting is jarring. More than twenty years later, this soundtrack moment endures in popular culture because it exemplifies what Harron does best throughout the film: create an unsettling mix of dark humor and horror.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.