American Psycho’s ambiguous ending leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination, so how many victims (if any) did Patrick Bateman actually kill, how much of the movie takes place in his unhinged mind, and what was the point? Released in 2000, American Psycho may be a cult classic, but one thing that Mary Harron’s Bret Easton Ellis adaptation is not is easy to decipher. Like the infamous novel it’s based on, American Psycho makes a point of leaving its events ambiguous during the discomfiting, blackly comic ending, explaining none of its strange and seemingly contradictory occurrences.
Starring a young Christian Bale (who famously credited Bateman’s glassy, emotionless charm to a Tom Cruise impression), American Psycho sees a young Wall Street banker engage in increasingly shocking, grotesque misdeeds throughout the movie while still attending his day job and finding time for social events. Early on in American Psycho, the revelation of Bateman’s shocking crimes appears to be the crux of the movie—this seemingly straight-laced character is hiding a secret second life of debauchery and brutality and has hidden this fact from everyone around him. However, as American Psycho progresses, things become more complicated.
By the midpoint of American Psycho, Bateman has begun attracting attention to his crimes by killing off his colleague Paul Allen. Future Joker Jared Leto’s brief appearance as the character ends with him receiving an ax through the skull, and soon after this, a private investigator begins questioning Bateman about Allen’s apparent disappearance. Once again, it seems as though American Psycho is setting the stage for a Dexter-esque mystery wherein Bateman will need to hide his crimes and curtail his killer impulses until the police are off his case. Instead, nothing of the sort occurs. Bateman begins committing more and more outrageous crimes, culminating in the bloody chainsaw slaughter of two women in an apartment complex and eventually a full-blown shooting spree through the streets of New York. As American Psycho reaches its dramatic conclusion, Bateman finally confesses his crimes to his lawyer (twice—once via voicemail and once in person), only for the cold character to inform him Paul Allen is still alive and (seemingly) none of the climax’s events occurred in reality.
To explain the twist ending of American Psycho, the specific timeline of events is vital. When Bateman awakens from his crime spree and subsequent confession, he immediately goes to Paul Allen’s apartment to clean up the remains he left there. However, Bateman instead finds no remains and a cold realtor who informs him that no “Paul Allen” owns the apartment in question, before asking him to leave. Bateman meets his co-workers for lunch and walks into his lawyer, who mistakes him for someone else and assumes the voicemail was a joke poking fun at Bateman. The lawyer calls Bateman too “square” to have committed the atrocities in question, and when Bateman reiterates his crimes, the lawyer leaves the conversation in discomfort, annoyed by the joke going too far. Bateman returns to his conversing colleagues—and it is in their dialogue that the key to understanding the ending is hidden.
Harron and Ellis have both said that the question of whether Patrick killed a colleague named Paul Allen is intentionally left ambiguous, as both possibilities reinforce the message of American Psycho. Patrick could have killed a co-worker and no one around him would have noticed or cared because he was living in the amoral, high-powered environs of Wall Street. In his circles, wearing the wrong outfit was a bigger misstep than costing millions of homeowners their life savings, meaning Bateman and the viewer will never know for certain whether he killed a colleague since inhumane acts mean that little to his co-workers and friends.
Many viewers read the M. Night Shyamalan-style twist ending of American Psycho as a straightforward “it’s all in the unreliable narrator’s head” twist, and Harron has expressed frustration over how common this reading of the movie adaptation is as the answer is intended to be unclear. However, it is worth noting that Bateman’s murder of an unfortunate vagrant is entirely believable, and even his very public killing of two prostitutes is the sort of crime that people in positions of power have been able to erase from existence. The killing of his co-worker is more likely to be an imaginary exploit since Bateman would likely be ejected from high society circles if he kept killing colleagues. However, even then that’s not quite true on a metaphorical level.
Backstabbing, headhunting, poaching, and other colorful dysphemisms are frequently used to illustrate the duplicitous, amoral corporate culture of finance. Thus, Patrick Bateman’s “killing” of Jared Leto‘s Allen could be “real” since he ruined the career, livelihood, or life of a rival, and only Bateman’s conscience was clear enough to see this as a monstrous act, with everyone around him writing it off as just good business. The “madness” of Bateman is rooted in Bale’s character attempting to literalize the awfulness of what he does for a living. As such, his co-workers fastidiously ignore this, as if they too started to see the amoral elements of Wall Street, they would reconsider their entire life’s choices.
As promised earlier, American Psycho’s real meaning can be found in a conversation during the movie’s closing scene. Bateman returns from the confounding confrontation with his lawyer to find his co-workers watching Ronald Reagan speak on television, commenting on the Iran Contra affair. Bateman’s co-worker (played by The Mosquito Coast‘s Justin Theroux) notes that Reagan presents himself as “a harmless old codger, but inside…” only for Bateman’s internal monologue to note that what’s inside doesn’t matter. Reagan’s positive public perception saw him maintain popularity despite ignoring the AIDS crisis, the Iran Contra affair, lobbying scandals, and the income inequality fostered by Reaganomics. Bateman’s co-worker asks him for his take on the president, prompting the protagonist to respond with a placid “whatever.”
This uncaring facade prefigures the intense apathy and nihilism that dominated the pop culture landscape after the optimistic idealism of the ‘80s segued into the grim, cynical hopelessness of the ‘90s. American Psycho, in both movie and book form, closes on this dark idea, one which explains the confusing ending by clarifying that which crimes were real doesn’t matter. A person like American Psycho‘s Bateman can, after all, commit untold evil once they maintain a positive public face, and the true extent of their misdeeds may stay forever unknowable because people can’t see what they choose not to believe or care about.