Anyone who watches American Psycho is always a bit confused by the plot. The final scene of the film and the way you get there contradict what the film has shown so far, and the temptation is to think that everything happened only in the protagonist’s head, Patrick Bateman. Yet, it’s a bit more complicated, and it’s time a complete, detailed explanation of the facts.
The explanations you find below are supported by the same director of the film, who in an interview admitted that the final scene partially failed its original purpose, because it wasn’t her intention to let the viewer believe that everything was just imagined. “I should have left it more open ended” – she said – “It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.”
But let’s go step by step.
Is Patrick Bateman really a serial killer?
Yes, Patrick Bateman is a murderer and he has killed several people. The confirmation elements are scattered throughout the film and are part of the scenes closely connected real life, such as the blood-soiled sheets at the dry cleaner or the first homicide we witness, the homeless man in the street.
This does not mean that everything seen in the film is real. The sequences leading to the ending scene are evidently unreal: the ATM asks him to sacrifice a cat, the police cars explode after a couple of simple gunshots. It is clear that at some point in the film Bateman loses control of reality and is no longer clear about what is real and what is not. But this does not erase the reality of what we have seen up to that precise point.
Is Paul Allen’s murder real?
Yes, Paul Allen is really killed with an ax by Patrick Bateman, this is the real part of the film. There is an investigator who is trying to understand what happened, there are interrogations and an apartment where he no longer lives. None of this is imagined.
Obviously this contradicts some of the things shown at the end of the film, but they are only apparent contradictions. Let’s see them together:
- In the ending, the lawyer says he was having dinner with Paul Allen a few days before: the lawyer cannot tell the true identity even of Patrick Bateman (mistaking him for a certain Davis), and in the same way he is confused about the identity of all others employees at Pierce & Pierce. The truth is that nobody really knows who is who, because everyone is focused on themselves, nobody cares about the others. This is the main criticism of the film: all the employees appear to be vicepresidents and show off their business cards, but nobody has a true recognized identity and even the people nearby (like Bateman’s lawyer) confuse one with another. Paul Allen himself had mistaken Bateman for Marcus Halberstram. It was just happening continuously.
- The investigator reveals to Bateman that he has an alibi for the night of the murder: the character played by Willem Dafoe knows that that evening there was a dinner with many Pierce & Pierce employees, including Bateman, and that takes him off the list of suspects. In reality, this is also a lucky exchange of identities, and evidently the name of Bateman had been associated with someone else really present at that dinner, while Bateman was killing Allen. The same investigator also reveals that he was told that Allen had been spotted in London and that the information had then turned out to be fake: evidently the lawyer mentioned above told the investigator, and this confirms the confusion we said before.
- Allen’s apartment is rented and the bodies have disappeared: this is also part of the criticism of 1980s hedonism that inspires the entire film. A prestigious apartment like this should be rented as soon as possible, so the real estate agency that finds the bodies decides not to call the police and resolve the problem autonomously, renewing it on the fly and immediately looking for a new paying renter. This is evident from the trick questions of the real estate agent to Patrick Bateman: when she understands that Bateman has something to do with what was in that apartment until a short time before, she suggests to just get out of the way and not create problems. The priority is to rent the flat. And Bateman, of course, won’t wait a minute more.
So what’s the meaning of the final monologue?
“There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing.”
“My punishment keeps avoiding me.” Because as much as Patrick Bateman is a crazy psychopath, he is no longer able to clearly distinguish reality and has killed an unknown number of people, the prestige of his person and the superficiality of the environments he lives in prevent anyone from believing in his confession. No one knows who Patrick Bateman really is, none of the characters even know if Tony Allen is really alive or dead, everything navigates around an unconfirmed plausibility that doesn’t need to be confirmed. Therefore a confession has no effect. Even killing has no meaning:: Bateman is only a victim of his own uncontrolled frenzy, he no longer receives pleasure or catharsis from the murders,he cannot stop and cannot even be stopped by confessing. He is simply condemned to the continuation of an insignificant existence.