This is one videotape we don’t want to return.
American Psycho’s ending leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a New York City yuppie that moonlights as a serial killer, but did he actually kill people? How much of the movie takes place in his unhinged mind?
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel of the same name, American Psycho's director Mary Harron says this cult classic is not easy to decipher on the first watch and has a complicated legacy. Upon its release, it was derided by many critics as being misogynistic, while other critics went in the opposite direction and claimed that the movie was sexist towards men.
Similar to the novel, the ending is infamously ambiguous, leaving us to wonder what actually happened throughout the movie. The ending of the film has been a source of debate amongst fans for a long time, but it’s an argument that we are ready to settle.
So, what happened in American Psycho? Let's get into it.
American Psycho Ending Explained
The ending of American Psycho can be explained in two different ways. While both explanations are valid, it is ultimately up to the viewer to decide what really happened throughout the movie.
Because the ending is so reliant on the plot, let me give you a quick summary of American Psycho.
American Psycho Movie Plot Summary
In 1987’s New York City, Patrick Bateman is a young and wealthy investment banker on Wall Street, driven by achieving wealth and gaining status over his peers. He spends his time dining at popular restaurants and keeping up appearances for his fiancée Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon) and his circle of wealthy peers, whom he despises.
Bateman doesn’t seem as bad as his coworkers until we are given the first look at his psychopathic psyche when his Platinum AMEX gets rejected at his favorite bar. The next morning, we get a detailed morning routine to show that Bateman is all about appearances because that’s all he has.
At a business meeting, Bateman and his associates flaunt their business cards to assert themselves as the best in the room. Enraged by the superiority of Paul Allen’s (Jared Leto) card, Bateman stabs a homeless man in an alley that night and stomps the man’s dog to death. At a Christmas party, Bateman and Allen, who mistakes Bateman for another coworker once again, make plans for dinner after the party.
Bateman’s resentment for Allen grows at dinner as Allen flaunts his lifestyle and ability to obtain reservations at Dorsia, an exclusive restaurant that Bateman can’t get into. After insulting Bateman by talking about how much of a loser Bateman is, Allen goes back to Bateman’s house.
Everyone knows what is about to happen as soon as they see the newspaper on the floor. Bateman gives a needle-drop review of Huey Lewis and the News and kills Allen with an ax. Bateman then goes to Allen’s apartment and leaves a message on his answering machine claiming that Allen has gone on a business trip to London.
After private investigator Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) interviews Bateman regarding Allen’s disappearance, Bateman hires two sex workers to come to his apartment and tortures them after having sex. Bateman’s colleague Luis (Matt Ross) reveals his new business card, enraging Bateman who tries to strangle him in the restroom of an expensive restaurant. Luis mistakes Bateman’s attempt for a sexual advance and declares his love for Bateman, who panics and leaves to “return some video tapes.”
Bateman murders a model before inviting his secretary Jean (Chloë Sevigny) to dinner, suggesting that she stop at his apartment for drinks. Bateman plans to kill her with a nail gun but is interrupted by a voice message that gives way to some uncharacteristic restraint and mercy from Bateman. Later that night, Bateman has sex with two women, eventually murdering one in bed and dropping a chainsaw on the other.
Patrick heads to an ATM and the machine tells him to feed it a stray cat. His attempt at more animal cruelty begets a cry of confusion from an elderly woman, whom Bateman shoots. A mini police chase begins, with Bateman blowing up two cop cars with his gun and shooting two people at his office. Seeing that his doom is inevitable, Patrick calls his lawyer and confesses to his various crimes.
American Psycho Ending
The next day, we find Bateman in his apartment going about his day like nothing happened that previous night. At a meeting with detective Kimball, Bateman is informed that his co-workers have provided him with an alibi for the night of Paul Allen’s disappearance.
When Bateman goes back to the scene of his chainsaw killing spree, he finds the apartment clean, with the dead bodies gone and the walls freshly painted. The building’s manager finds him and says that the apartment never belonged to Paul Allen. Bateman goes to have drinks with his friends and spots his lawyer Carnes (Stephen Bogaert). Bateman confronts Carnes about his confessional phone call, but Carnes mistakes Bateman for a co-worker named David and laughs off his call as a joke.
Bateman insists that his confession was true, but Carnes says Paul Allen isn't dead because he recently had dinner with Allen in London. Confused, Bateman returns to his friends who are musing over whether Ronald Reagan is a harmless old man or a hidden psychopath before discussing their dinner reservations. The lack of acknowledgment drives Bateman further into madness and existential despair. In Patrick Bateman's monologue at the end, he realizes that his confession has meant nothing, and he will never receive the punishment he desires.
American Psycho Ending Explained
There are two common interpretations of the ending of American Psycho.
One is that everything in the movie did happen. Bateman did murder all of these people. There is a reason why everyone in the movie looks the same, and why everyone mixes each other up throughout. Every man in this movie is essentially competing to be the same guy, causing every man to have no distinguishing facets to them except that they are rich and powerful.
Think back to the business card scene. All of the talks about the different fonts or card stock is ultimately pointless because the cards all look the same. There is a goal of what type of man Bateman and his associates should be, and they are desperately trying to check off the boxes.
Bateman's father could also be one of these people, paying off Carnes to act as if nothing happened to protect his and his son's name. His father was mentioned earlier in the movie as practically owning the company that Bateman and his associates work at. Under this theory, the building manager cleaned out the apartment to prevent its value from dropping, which doesn't seem unlikely in a world where appearances are everything.
Bateman represents the amorphous upper class that can get away with murder.
Another interpretation is that Bateman is the oddball that everyone thinks he is, and that the murders in the film were just his violent fantasies on display for the viewer to see.
While most people think that Bateman’s shooting spree was only in his head, the rest of the movie doesn’t support nor negate this reading. Since the movie’s point of view is restricted to Bateman, the audience is forced to experience the movie’s events through Bateman’s view of them. There’s no objective reality to know what is real and what is fantasy.
The movie was designed to keep the ending ambiguous and up to the viewer’s interpretation.
“We didn’t think that everything was real because some of it is literally surreal,” co-writer Guinevere Turner told Movie Maker. “But we just decided, together, that we both really disliked movies where the big reveal is that it was all in someone’s head or it was all a dream.”
When Mary Harron was asked directly if the entire movie was in Bateman's head, Harron replied, "I would never answer that. As Quentin Tarantino says, 'If I tell you that, I will take this movie away from you.' I will say there's a moment where it becomes less realistic, and that's the moment when the ATM says ‘Feed Me a Stray Cat.’"
American Psycho Novel vs. American Psycho Adaptation
While Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho has become a cult favorite because of its satirical tellings of the horrors of yuppie culture, author Bret Easton Ellis has never been a fan of the movie.
Ellis has made it very clear that his novel is unfilmable. “I also don’t think [it] really works as a film,” Ellis told Film School Rejects. “The movie is fine, but I think that the book is unadaptable because it’s about consciousness, and you can’t really shoot that sensibility.”
What Ellis means is that the novel limits the reader to Bateman’s stream of consciousness. The medium of film demands answers that will always be answered visually.
“Also, you have to make a decision whether Patrick Bateman kills people or not. Regardless of how Mary Harron wants to shoot that ending, we’ve already seen him kill people; it doesn’t matter if he has some crisis of memory at the end.”
While I agree that adapting a novel that has such a tight and narrow perspective is incredibly difficult, I do think Harron achieves some level of ambiguity that leaves the audience confused and wondering what was real and what isn’t. The greatest endings in cinema are the ones that leave us slightly confused and wanting an answer.
Also, the novel’s satirical nature is missed by many readers and often gets interpreted as glorifying violence against women. This is further amplified by Ellis’ misogynistic remarks against female directors, telling Kyle Buchanan that he is “not totally convinced” women can direct because “I think it's a medium that really is built for the male gaze and for a male sensibility.”
Harron wanted to emphasize the satirical nature of the novel, an element that was lost on many readers who failed to recognize its critiques of the lead character.
"One thing I think is a failure on my part is people keep coming out of the film thinking that it's all a dream, and I never intended that,” Harron told Charlie Rose.
Harron continued, “All I wanted was to be ambiguous in the way that the book was. I think it's a failure of mine in the final scene because I just got the emphasis wrong. I should have left it more open-ended. It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I'm concerned, it's not."
Themes in American Psycho
Ellis did appreciate how the film clarified the themes of the novel.
The book and the film are truly great critiques of male behavior, specifically privileged white male behavior. Unlike Joker, American Psycho does not want us to look at Bateman with any sympathy throughout the movie. Instead, the movie gives us an unsympathetic view of his day-to-day life, giving us the power to look at him without bias.
The horrors of the movie are framed around Bateman’s abuse of power and entitlement. He is the embodiment of success at the expense of everything and everyone around him. He is a shark who is willing to devour himself if it means he wins in the end.
But in the end, we are left with Bateman to realize that society just eats up any act of personal rebellion and spits you out even more broken and helpless than before.
Sure, Bateman is trapped in the violent cycle of consumerism and yuppie America that he actively chose to be a part of because he assumed he could rise above it all, but you can’t help but relate to that moment of isolation and existentialism at the end when Bateman realizes he is nothing in a system where people don’t matter.
As viewers, we know that Bateman could escape this cycle if he were a better person, but he seems like the kind of character that would rather wallow in his self-pity than actually go to therapy. Harron leaves us with an image of Bateman sitting at a fancy restaurant, unpunished, and unhappy because he is just like everyone else around him.
Summing Up American Psycho, the Movie and Ending Explained
This film tends to be people’s first introduction into the wider world of cinema, placing it into the Film Bro canon, and there is good reason for that.
The acting, writing, and direction are all masterfully crafted to tell a complex story that forces the audience to think about what the film means to them. What makes this film stand out in the Film Bro canon is that Bateman is revered as a horror icon, almost every scene in the film is an iconic meme, and it is one of the few Film Bro movies that is made by women.
If you haven’t watched the film in a while, I recommend you go watch it and see how the film still holds some truth in modern America. As for the sequel starring Mila Kunis, I don’t recommend it if you are expecting something as great as American Psycho.
Let us know your theories in the comments.