20 years ago, two movies peeled the shiny skin off elite society to reveal the horror beneath
American Psycho and The Skulls showed that being rich and powerful isn't aspirational — it's a nightmare
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
At no point in my life have I aspired to join a secret society. I've never wanted a fancy-looking business card, and I'd feel upset and uncomfortable to discover I'd found my way into a conversation with Patrick Bateman. This aversion came naturally from growing up proudly working class — but I was also introduced to the pitfalls of wealth and classicism through the early 2000 releases of The Skulls and American Psycho. And with those movies, I learned a very valuable lesson: I would rather evaporate than find myself revelling in the midst of the super-rich and exclusive.
When both films were released in the spring of the new millennium, I was a wee baby 15-year-old who longed to one day afford as many Roxy hoodies as humanly possible. "Fancy" meant ordering my choice of pasta from the East Side Mario's dinner menu, and "success" meant dressing somewhat like Carrie Bradshaw, despite not fully understanding the intentions behind her outfits (or how I could pull them off). But The Skulls and American Psycho introduced me to the toxicity, misogyny, and discriminatory tendencies that tended to accompany the world of elitism — revealing what a sick, sad, and dangerous reality it really was.
Released first and celebrated considerably less, The Skulls starred Joshua Jackson and the late Paul Walker in a plot that opened the door to the benefits of belonging to a centuries-old college secret society (power, access, the ability to avoid facing any real consequences) before shoving us into the reality that may accompany it (lack of personal freedom, corruption, cover-ups, murder). Was the movie good? To me, a teenager who couldn't believe Paul Walker and Joshua Jackson were finally co-starring in a movie, absolutely. But from a critical standpoint? The reception was lukewarm, because evidently a teen thriller based on conspiracy theories tied to Yale's Skull and Bones student society failed to delight adult critics who found the plot and dialogue ridiculous and far-fetched. The acting is over-the-top, the a-ha moments are endless (and therefore less impactful), and the narrative seems like the type you come up with in a middle school creative writing class that tends to end with "and it was all a dream." But the movie did succeed at one thing: it made joining the ranks of the social and economic upper crust seem terrible. Frankly, it left you feeling relieved that you had no idea how to find this world, and you hoped you'd never somehow stumble upon it.
American Psycho came out about a month later and only served to reaffirm this. Based on the novel by Brett Easton Ellis and directed by Ontario-born Mary Harron, the story revolves around a Manhattan businessman named Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) whose lust for status is rivalled only by his lust for blood. Set in the 1980s, Patrick's world is made up of designer suits, young beautiful women, and the intricate details of his and his frenemies' business cards. Unlike The Skulls, the film was a hit: its dialogue is whip-sharp, funny, and provides biting insight into (and criticism of) the dangers of capitalism, and thanks to taking the story in through Bateman's own internal dialogue, you find yourself with front row seats to a horror show — and being along with him on that ride to the top reveals how awful and repulsive that world really is.
While The Skulls' plot hardly compares to the complexity of American Psycho's (no disrespect to Paul or Josh), both movies still worked at targeting and tearing down any romanticization of elitism and the appeal of earning status. They both also shone a light on worlds that most of us aren't familiar with — and then made us realize that far from being aspirational, should one gain entry into those worlds, life will get considerably worse.
Of course, these movies weren't the first of their kind, nor would they be the last. But before the 2000s melted into the 2010s — and the art following the 2008 recession began highlighting the realities of a fractured socioeconomic climate — these two glimpses of the cultural offerings of spring 2000 helped lay the groundwork for the movies and TV series that are currently thriving. Series like Succession and Billions both show that a life rich in money doesn't necessarily mean it's rich in anything else. Reality franchises like Real Housewives give us a look into ultra luxe lifestyles but reveal the petty drama that tends to come with them. And then there's Parasite: a story in which a struggling family infiltrates the home of a rich one, leading to an entertaining amount of chaos — but also, more importantly, calling out the inequality among social classes and the way capitalism pits members of the working class against each other while the wealthy live comfortably off the backs of those "beneath" them.
Looking back, it makes sense that the movies of the new millennium would raise questions and delve into themes that would come to define it. The dawn of the new century was already brimming with uncertainty and fear (shoutout to everyone whose parents stocked up on canned goods and bottled water in case Y2K triggered widespread pandemonium), so to build on conspiracy theories — or to explore the patriarchal world of high speed finance — was another way of tapping into the mental and emotional climate. So why wouldn't one film appeal to younger audiences (who had maybe just begun to question the status quo) and another serve the same type of message (only more violently and dramatically and funny) to young adults gearing up to define an entirely new century?
Coming off the 90s, this shift makes a lot of sense. The latter half of the decade saw President Clinton impeached for lying about his extramarital affair (which tarnished the shiny veneer that's supposed to protect one of the most powerful people on the planet), while the first half gave us musical genres like grunge, movies like Kids, and TV shows like My So-Called Life, which championed the ideology that life is messy, unglamorous, and most people are struggling. (Compare this to 80s movies like Wall Street and Charlie Sheen's character's obsession with wealth, power, and cozying up to the best and brightest.) And so the 2000s did one better: to kickstart a new era, pop culture used the recent past and the promise of the future to raise questions and challenge norms that hadn't been entirely explored yet. In fact, spring 2000 was the perfect time to plant the seeds needed to begin questioning systemic norms, especially since winter was coming off the calamity of Y2K and, well, the summer is useless.
So I guess we have The Skulls to thank for my fear of sororities, fraternities, and secret societies. And we can credit American Psycho for my refusal to carry business cards. I'll also never enroll in an ivy league school (because I'm Canadian and we don't have any of those), nor do I want to spend my money on designer-wear (no shade at anyone who does — I just love a bargain so much). In fact, it was seeing these depictions of faraway grandiose lifestyles that helped cement what I really wanted: to write and to try and make people laugh. I came to realize that success wasn't about chasing wealth and a higher tax bracket, but about making the creative part of myself happy (and hopefully — if I played my cards right — other people too). And to think, I wouldn't have even seen American Psycho if my friend and I hadn't rented it the year it came out, thinking it was a slasher film starring Laurie from Little Women. Turns out Patrick Bateman is far scarier. And the clique of high-ranking capitalist heavyweights? Scarier still.