Is Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” actually a serial killer, or is it in his head?


“I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.” - Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)

The ending of American Psycho (2000) is a classic piece of ambiguity. Is Patrick Bateman actually a serial killer who murdered tons of people, or is he just a loon who imagined the whole thing? Or, perhaps, even a third possibility? There are different schools of analysis that help interpret the events of American Psycho, and some very telling quotes by those who made the picture.

Bateman is clearly a few things:

  • Disconnected from reality, picking up cues on how to behave from his surroundings. This leads him to believe image, money, and reservations at Dorsia are the prime goals in life.
  • Someone who believes people’s associations help define who they are.
  • A drug user with a megalomania complex that renders him perpetually unsatisfied.
  • A man involved in an empty, superficial, selfish, vain, Yuppie environment. (During the opening narration, he mentions the building he lives in before his own name.)
  • Defined by consumerism and living by the language of advertisements, as well as driven forward by that same consumption

Those who believe Bateman is merely a disturbed man with murderous thoughts cite numerous evidentiary points to that end: Bateman’s murder spree kicks off when an ATM tells him to feed it a cat, which clearly couldn’t happen. He manages to take down a few cops and explode a cop car using a pistol (way beyond his gun skill level and another obvious hallucination). He murders a girl with a chainsaw that nobody else hears; the bodies of his victims all disappear; his lawyer says Paul Allen (Jared Leto) isn’t actually dead; Jean (Chloë Sevigny) finds a notebook indicating he’s insane; and although he confesses to people several times throughout the movie, nobody takes him seriously. With all of that, it seems pretty easy to believe he’s only been imagining it all.

But American Psycho Director Mary Harron said audiences weren’t supposed to think Bateman is innocent. She told Charlie Rose, “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. 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.”

Thus, many of the above scenes aren’t supposed to be evidence that the murders didn’t happen but are supposed to reflect Bateman’s deteriorating mental state and the loss of his grip on any semblance of reality. After all, the film isn’t really about a murderer; it’s a satire about big business, Yuppie lifestyle, and the way the wealthiest big money executives only care about themselves. It’s a condemnation of American business practice and the people that facilitate it, who are as ruthless about money as serial killers are about murder. Bateman is a manifestation of everything that is horrible about the environment he fuels. What he becomes is a combination of it all that is seeking the next level of identity.

Every time Bateman confesses to people, they dismiss his words. When he’s seen stuffing a body into the trunk of a car, the witness is only interested in where he got such a great overnight bag. The people are so self-absorbed and uninterested in others that they are completely oblivious to the serial killer standing before them. That’s why nobody comes running when they hear a chainsaw in the stairwell. That’s why nobody questions Bateman’s violent tendencies and threats: They’re too self-absorbed to care.

When Paul Allen’s apartment is cleaned up and the bodies disappear, it feels like more fuel for the delusional “murders didn’t happen” theory. But Bateman’s interactions with Allen’s realtor are awkward; her reactions mirror Bateman’s; and, given the value of Allen’s apartment, it’s within the realm of possibility that she cleaned the place up to make a buck. Nobody is going to buy an apartment where bodies were found. A theory put forth by Cinemablend (among others) proposes that Bateman murdered everyone in the film except Paul Allen, which explains many of the film’s killings and accommodates the story from the lawyer at the end. Allen was Bateman’s primary source of jealousy and hatred, so it’s possible he imagined killing him during the course of killing everyone else.

The final conversation between Bateman and his lawyer is also a big citation towards him not being a killer. When the lawyer claims to have had lunch with Paul Allen after Bateman supposedly killed him, it throws all of Bateman’s other actions into question. But mistaken identity is common throughout American Psycho well before the scene with the lawyer. Nearly every character has been confused for another, including Bateman—a nod to the interchangeable homogeneity of all the players represented in the film, with their matching Vice President job titles and physical appearances. Bateman’s lawyer doesn’t even call him the right name, so how can we be sure Paul Allen was actually the person he met in London?

Regardless of whether or not he successfully killed Allen, it seems clear he was a killer. Guinevere Turner, the film’s screenwriter, gave her explanation of the ending to Yahoo, saying, “Everything was really happening. But at some point, we’re starting to see things through Patrick’s eyes. He’s losing his mind. So for example, in the scene where he gets the two hookers to come over, and he’s videotaping himself and looking at himself in the mirror – in real life, they probably they weren’t as attractive as they are, and it wasn’t all as Penthouse Letters as it is. So that’s where we start getting into Patrick’s head. And then by the time the ATM says ‘Feed me a stray cat’ – he’s there, he’s got the kitten, but the ATM doesn’t actually say that. He’s just going nuts. And then he’s unraveling from there. So by the end, the idea was that this man lives in this world where nobody can tell anyone apart — and obviously the whole movie is a hyper-reality — but he did do all this stuff and he still cannot stand out because nobody cares about anything and nobody’s paying attention to anyone. And they’re all interchangeable. And so he’s stuck. He’s practically begging, saying, ‘I kill people! I’m not like all of you, I have something special about me!’ And they’re like, ‘Wait, who are you?’ And that’s what we were going for, that big metaphor.”

Bateman isn’t into mergers and acquisitions, he’s into murders and executions. His extreme attempts to establish an identity for himself within the sea of 1%-ers still doesn’t yield him any acknowledgment or regard. He’s just another psycho, his crimes viewed as no different than those of anyone else on Wall Street.