After a coolly measured look into the emptiness of excess and cruelty, the ending of the film American Psycho leaves you wondering if was all just a hallucination or fantasy. Is the “psycho” in American Psycho short for psychopath, psychotic, or both?
American Psycho toys with our sense of identity, and entitlement. The scrubbed up upper-class dolls of American Psycho‘s world futilely strive to compete against people they are constantly being mistaken for. Their insides and outsides are blank, and they cannot interact with each other because they never see each other. The only things they strive for are the best eggshell-colored vacuums of space that money can buy. In this world of nothingness, it could be possible that Patrick Bateman is a brutal serial killer, and no one notices. If they do notice anything out of the ordinary, they want to sweep it away because any uncertainty clouds the crystal waters of their pristinely untroubled minds. It’s our world at an amplified slant, run through a satirical dystopian filter.
We’re transfixed by American Psycho‘s jabs and questions about some of the dark, empty corners of life, and the type of numbing meanness excessive wealth can inspire. The trouble with identity, with bumping up against other people’s egos, with wondering what we’re striving for, and if we’re being “seen,” are all universal things. The luxuries of modern life can offer both a comfortable separation from other people, and a maddening sterile loneliness. Part of these issues are colored by our modern, technologically advanced world, but at the core these are things we have wrestled with for ages.
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.” – Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
People at the top of the money and power food chain have always seemed to have an advantage over the rest of humanity, who have to prioritize basic needs. There is always the dream of a lottery win, of getting a better job, of saving up for retirement, so you can not just be comfortable, but also to possibly actualize yourself when you remove the necessity of working just to get by. American Psycho explores the idea that this is an illusion; that those who have everything they need or want are just as at loss of who they are than anyone else.
“Paul Allen has mistaken me for this d**khead Marcus Halberstram. It seems logical because Marcus also works at P&P and in fact does the same exact thing I do and he also has a penchant for Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses. Marcus and I even go to the same barber, although I have a slightly better haircut.” – Patrick Bateman
Patrick Bateman takes the trouble of invisibility to horrific heights, leaving an audacious trail of bodies in his wake, and living with the insanity of getting away with it without actually trying. It can seem like a stretch what lengths other people in this world would go to to cover up another person’s messes. Some theories about American Psycho‘s ending speculate that the real estate broker simply cleaned up the bodies from Paul Allen’s apartment herself so she could sell the place more easily. Involving the police and turning the place into a crime scene would cut into her bottom line, so she avoids all this by being a bit of a “psycho” herself and disposing of bodies and scrubbing “Die Yuppie Scum!” off of the wall. It seems implausible, but in a world where anyone might be a monster, maybe it’s not.
The trouble with trying to get at what’s going on is that both the film and the book live in Patrick Bateman’s head, and he is a very troubled man who seems to have lost his grip on reality. There are a number of indications in the film that support the idea that Patrick hallucinates and distorts reality. But, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t killed anyone.
According to the filmmakers, the answer is somewhere in between imagined events and real. In a roundtable interview with Charlie Rose that included Bret Easton Ellis (wrote the book,) Christian Bale (played Patrick Bateman,) the film’s director Mary Herron was very candid about her intentions for the film, and her disappoint with how people interpret it, “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.”
Screenplay writer Guinevere Turner fleshed out what they meant to do with the movie:
“It’s ambiguous in the novel whether or not it’s real, or how much of it is real, and we decided, right off the bat, first conversation about the book, that we hate movies, books, stories that ended and ‘it was all a dream’ or ‘it was all in his head’. Like Boxing Helena, there’s just a lot of stuff like that. And so we really set out, and we failed, and we’ve acknowledged this to each other, we really set out to make it really clear that he was really killing these people, that this was really happening. What’s funny is that I’ve had endless conversations with people who know that I wrote this script saying ‘So, me and my friends were arguing, cause I know it was all a dream’, or ‘I know it really happened’. And I always tell them, in our minds it really happened.”
“What starts to happen as the movie progresses is that what you’re seeing is what’s going on in his head. So when he shoots a car and it explodes, even he for a second is like ‘Huh?’ because even he is starting to believe that his perception of reality cannot be right. As he goes more crazy, what you actually see becomes more distorted and harder to figure out, but it’s meant to be that he is really killing all these people, it’s just that he’s probably not as nicely dressed, it probably didn’t go as smoothly as he is perceiving it to go, the hookers probably weren’t as hot etc etc etc It’s just Bateman’s fantasy world. And I’ve turned to Mary many times and said ;We’ve failed, we didn’t write the script that we intended to write.'”
Their disappointments aside, American Psycho is an incredible film that will continue to titillate its audience AND make it think. It’s great because it presents Patrick Bateman’s madness in a bold and shocking manner, while threading an undercurrent of subtlety concerning his world and his reality. Because the audience is never given an outside account of any of the events beyond what Patrick relates to us, picking out reality from fantasy is impossible.
“I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.” – Patrick Bateman
What’s clear is that Patrick is deeply troubled and as the film progresses his break from reality increases until he sees an ATM ask him to feed it a stray cat, and then gets into what would be a high-profile shootout with the police. Everything DID occur in Patrick’s head, but the trouble is figuring out how much Patrick actually acted on his sick fantasies, and how they actually transpired versus, how they were presented to the audience.
American Psycho is currently streaming for free on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please show your support by sharing this link. You can also support this blog and help it keep running by contributing to Patreon.