Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. In this entry, we look back at the ending of American Psycho.
Wall Street: the land of those crazy people who actually “get” stocks, dudes in thousand-dollar suits, and people who quietly profit off the suffering of others. Such is the basis of American Psycho, which follows Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), your favorite handsome, charismatic, wealthy investment banker on Wall Street. Mary Harron’s darkly comedic adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name takes a sinister glimpse into the life of the New York elite. Patrick blends into the bustling crowd of bankers. They all wear the same designer suit, don the same expensive haircut, and, most importantly, have eerily similar business cards. But they’re not all the same. After all, Patrick is the only serial killer. Or is he?
American Psycho is filled with ironic and borderline implausible misunderstandings. Following its release, the film was praised for being complex and dealing with themes of toxic masculinity as well as being a “monster movie.” For Patrick, being a serial killer is all too easy. This is apparent when he shouts death threats at the dry cleaner employee in broad daylight and no one blinks an eye, or when he wraps his hands around the throat of co-worker Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross) and Luis interprets it as a sexual advance. But no moment is more hilariously implausible than when Patrick confesses to his lawyer, Harold Carnes (Stephen Bogaert) that he’s committed all these murders, shouting into the phone that he’s killed at least twenty people, and his lawyer writes it off as a joke. Part of this seems to be a comment on the invisibility of the businessman: Patrick is constantly misunderstood for Paul Allen (Jared Leto), and so when Patrick bludgeons Paul to death with an ax to the soundtrack of “Huey Lewis and the News,” no one really notices.
The film is more than just a satire of the Wall Street lifestyle, though. At the end of the film, after Patrick sends in his murder confessional to Harold, he confronts him in person and Harold tells him he enjoyed the joke. Patrick insists that he wasn’t joking, but Harold tells him that what he said was impossible: Paul Allen is alive and well. In fact, Harold had lunch with him a couple of days ago. Wait, what? Talk about a twist ending! And it only gets crazier, if you can imagine that. We then get a scene in Paul’s apartment — the place where the dismembered body parts of Patrick’s victims supposedly reside — and it’s completely spick and span, without a limb in sight. The realtor then indicates that no one named Paul Allen ever actually lived there. What’s more, Patrick’s assistant Jean (Chloe Sevigny) finds a notebook filled with horrifying drawings in her boss’s desk. Has this all been in his head?
American Psycho ends with Patrick staring into the camera, with his voiceover confessing, “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. 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, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
So, either Patrick has killed a bunch of people and no one really noticed or cares, or he’s imagined the whole thing, or even he isn’t totally sure what the truth is. Though this ending is purposefully ambiguous, if you look a little closer, you’ll find clues that might help you to make sense of it all. One particularly illuminating scene is the sequence leading up to Patrick’s phone call confession. Christian Bale once described this in an interview with Charlie Rose as the moment when Patrick transforms from psychopathic to psychotic. He very clearly hallucinates when withdrawing cash from an ATM, (unless New York City ATM’s actually ask patrons to “feed me the cat” — I must confess, I haven’t been there in a while), and his narration becomes thus infinitely less reliable. That transformation leads the events of the film from real to imagined, and subsequently explains Paul being alive. Patrick hates Paul so much and fantasizes about killing him but takes that out on “easier” targets: the prostitutes, the old homeless man, the friendly neighborhood cat.
So, American Psycho is not a ruse; it’s not one of those “it was all a dream” endings. Patrick did kill a bunch of people… he just didn’t end up killing Paul and is probably genuinely surprised when he learns that. The film strikes a perfect balance between delusion and psychopathic behavior, and it definitely makes me think twice before going out with a guy in a designer suit and suspiciously perfect haircut.