Acting Analysis: Christian Bale’s Frightening Facial Work in the ‘American Psycho’ Business Card Scene

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Since its release in 2000, “American Psycho” has achieved the status of cinematic masterpiece. Adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 novel, Mary Harron’s film is a biting takedown of the Gordon Gekko–style “greed is good” philosophy of the 1980s. But beyond its clever storytelling and killer soundtrack, what elevates the movie is Christian Bale’s star turn as Patrick Bateman—investment banker by day, serial killer by night, musical gatekeeper by even later at night.

The Oscar winner’s performance marked a turning point in his career, as he moved from supporting actor in critically acclaimed films like Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women” (1995) and Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) to leading man. Despite multiple people warning him that taking on “American Psycho” would be “career suicide,” Bale jumped at the chance to play the role. His performance signaled the actor’s willingness to transform himself—both emotionally and physically—for the sake of a character.

You might even say that the film became his calling card.

Here, we break down the signature scene in Harron’s satirical horror: a battle of business cards that demonstrates the dual nature of Bale’s masterful performance. 

Bale’s full-body control  

Throughout the film, Patrick displays an almost religious fervor to stay on trend among the Wall Street set. His lengthy internal monologues (which Harron and her co-writer, ​​Guinevere Turner, took verbatim from Ellis’ novel) walk the viewer through his rigorous skincare and exercise regimes.

Bale narrates these sequences with a clinical, dispassionate air. That juxtaposition of high effort and low emotion drives home Patrick’s view of himself as less of a human than an idea—a facsimile of a person. In his own chilling words, “I simply am not there.”  

This contrast is apparent during the scene in question, in which Bateman and his coworkers engage in a battle of business cards in the boardroom at Pierce & Pierce. Throughout the sequence, Bale keeps his body rigid, only swiveling his neck to respond to the men around him; his internal life is entirely disconnected from his physicality.

Patrick flaunts his fancy new business card to Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), David Van Patten (Bill Sage), Craig McDermott (Josh Lucas), and Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with a thousand-watt smile. (In a testament to his all-in commitment, Bale had his real teeth reconstructed to match his character’s superficiality.) But even as Patrick grins, everything above the nose remains vacant; he only meets the eyes of his colleagues when he’s making sure their attention is on him. 

In a 2009 interview, Harron revealed Bale’s unlikely inspiration for his character’s sociopathic facial expressions. “We talked about how Martianlike Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave,” she said. “And then one day he called me, and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and [Cruise] just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes. And [Bale] was really taken with this energy.”

A glimpse behind the mask

Slick, expense business cards are the ultimate status symbol in the world of high finance. Patrick describes his own card’s color ("that's bone") with a genuine sense of satisfaction; the man only truly comes alive when he’s showing off his social standing. As he continues to lovingly describe the minutiae the object (“and the lettering is something called Silian Rail”), watch as Bale eyes each of his scene partners in turn: That’s Patrick making sure his colleagues truly understand that the quality of his business card makes him the most powerful man in a room of power players. 

Doubly impressive is the way the actor evokes how quickly his investment banker facade can slip. When David shows off own card (similar, except it’s “eggshell, with Romalian type”), Bale’s entire body goes rigid. His carefully curated confidence instantly transforms into barely concealed rage, to the point where he can barely force out the one-word response, “Nice.”

This is Bale demonstrating his understanding of how subtly altering his voice can convey much more than what’s on the page. Patrick’s tone is strong and firm when the focus is on him. But as soon as the power dynamic shifts, it’s almost as if he’s struggling to breathe; he needs validation the way other people need oxygen.

Harron, smartly, films Bale in tight close-up, so intimately that it’s obvious when the veneer of Patrick’s civility begins to crack. As Timothy compliments David’s card, the film reintroduces our protagonist’s voiceover. But this time, Patrick is far from dispassionate; there’s true desperation in the way he says, “I can’t believe that Bryce prefers McDermott’s card to mine.” 

The monster beneath the man

When Timothy finally throws down his own card, Bale delivers a master class in doing one thing while conveying another. Even as Patrick smiles and nods, he’s close to tears; for him, this game of professional one-upmanship is devastating. 

Notice the way Bale’s voice hitches on the line, “Impressive. Very nice.” There’s a film’s worth of character work in the half-second pause before he says, “Let’s see Paul Allen’s card.” Patrick uses this moment to try to pull himself together, knowing that committing one more faux pas could tip him over the edge. But when Paul throws down his card, that’s it. Harron cuts to the shot that would come to define Bale’s career: eyes empty, veins popping, face dripping with sweat.

Bale told We Got This Covered that his perspiration in the scene was a happy accident. “Bret Easton Ellis actually described it in this scene as his breathing sort of getting stopped. And so, in doing that, I just found that beads of sweat kept breaking out on my forehead,” the actor explained. “But that wasn’t actually planned. It was just a result of what I was doing with my breathing.”

When Patrick’s mask slips, it’s apparent that the face he presents to the world isn’t a very convincing one; a gaunt, soulless monster is always simmering just below the surface.

In the years that followed, Bale would subject himself to this kind of extreme physical and psychological transformation again and again. He dropped 63 pounds in four months for his role in Brad Anderson’s 2004 film “The Machinist,” then bulked back up to Patrick Bateman perfection immediately afterward to play Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Five years later, Bale would lose 30 pounds for his Oscar-winning turn in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.”

Ultimately, this “American Psycho” scene works so well because Bale doesn’t overplay either the businessman or the serial killer beneath. Both parts of Patrick’s personality are always apparent on his face, battling for supremacy. And because the actor never lets either side win, Patrick’s description of himself rings horrifyingly true: He simply isn’t there.

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