'American Psycho': What Really Happened At The End?
Ahh, American Psycho – the lone item at the center of the triple-Venn-diagram between finance dudebros, film students, and those with a penchant for spooky season (that and well … never mind). Yet more than three decades following the book's release in the early ‘90s and the film’s big-screen debut in 2000, one question remains – what the hell was that ending?
Now for those of you who haven't seen the movie since you returned the videotape back to Blockbuster circa 2002, American Psycho details the life and times of a rich banker named Patrick Bateman, played by a young Christian Bale, living in Manhattan during the yuppie/financial renaissance of the 1980s. Between his busy schedule of business card-related pissing contests with his rich colleagues, applying a multi-step skincare routine, and flexing his knowledge of Huey Lewis and the News, Bateman has a habit of murdering people for funsies – first a homeless man and his dog, then Paul Allen, his colleague portrayed by a pre-cult leader Jared Leto, and ultimately a giant cast of characters including several sex workers, doormen, and even an elderly woman begging him not to feed a stray cat to an ATM.
20-40 murders later, the question surrounding Bateman's sanity grows even murkier after several people claim to have seen Allen in London following his supposed death. Similarly, Allen's apartment, where Bateman kept the corpses of several of his victims, is now empty and evidently on the market. With the implication that the blood and gore of the past hour and 42 minutes may have all been in his head, Bateman ultimately realizes that he will never be held accountable. “This confession has meant nothing,” he says at the end of the film, staring directly into the camera.
So, is Bateman actually a murderer? In short, No one really knows, a refrain reiterated -- with various implications -- from several of the IP's major players.
The most concrete answer to our noble inquiry, however, seemingly comes from director Mary Harron. Although the filmmaker stated that she “… would never answer" whether the events of the movie were canonically real, citing fellow director Quentin Tarantino's famous quote of "‘if I tell you that, I take this movie away from you,'” while partaking in MovieMaker's oral history of American Psycho for its 20th anniversary, she noted that things definitely go off the rails into the realm of, erm, very bloody magical realism. “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," she continued.
Yet Harron wasn't always as diplomatic. In an interview with Charlie Rose several years back, the director slammed the movie, telling the host she felt she flubbed the film's famed ending.
“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,” she explained. “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.”
Bret Easton Ellis, who penned the original novel in the early '90s, seemingly has a much different take than his cinematic counterpart. Even though several decades have elapsed since American Psycho first hit bookshelves in March 1991, in 2016, the author told Rolling Stone's Kory Grow that he “never made a decision” about whether or not the series of gruesome axe murders depicted throughout his work really happened in the APCU (American Psycho Canonical Universe).
“That was what was so interesting to me about it,” he explained, noting that although even as he was writing the classic novel, he couldn't choose whether the events of his work were canonical fact or fiction. “You can read the book either way," he continued. “He’s telling you these things are happening, and yet things are contradicting him throughout the book, so I don’t know.”
Aside from the question of whether Bateman actually did commit a series of homicides with a smile on his face and "Hip To Be Square" ("a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics!") blaring in the background, Ellis has seemingly found himself grappling with another question at various points throughout the past decade: What would the work's pro-- wait no, ant--actually yeah, protagonist (protagonists can be murderous maniacs, right?) be up to if he were alive, well, and not either in prison or running throughout the floor of the New York Stock Exchange decapitating traders who buy into the Dogecoin hype with a chainsaw?
“For a while during the mid- to late '90s—at the height of the dotcom bubble, when Manhattan seemed even more absurdly decadent than it did in 1987, before Black Monday—it was a possibility that Bateman, if the book had been moved up a decade, would have been the founder of a number of dotcoms,” Ellis explained in a 2016 essay for Town and Country magazine detailing where he envisioned the future of Patrick Bateman, or well, similar iterations of his character throughout the decades.
And if the story took place 10-ish more years after that? “ … Sometimes I think that if I had written the book in the past decade, perhaps Bateman would have been working in Silicon Valley, living in Cupertino with excursions into San Francisco or down to Big Sur to the Post Ranch Inn and palling around with Zuckerberg and dining at the French Laundry, or lunching with Reed Hastings at Manresa in Los Gatos, wearing a Yeezy hoodie and teasing girls on Tinder,” he wrote later in the piece. Yet it seems that in Ellis's eyes, Bateman wouldn't necessarily be confined to life as a Silicon Valley douchebag: He could also be an NYC douchebag, too! “Patrick Bateman begets Bill Ackman and Daniel Loeb,” he added, singlehandedly defining the modern duality of man.
Even with these vivid visions of modern American Psycho grandeur (unchecked capitalism is so in this decade – and last, and the one before that, and so on and so forth until like, the early 19th century), Ellis explained that it was tricky for him to envision Bateman in a world beyond the 1980s. No, not because AirPod Pros have overtaken his iconic walkman headphones as the flex du jour and his painstaking grooming routine looks half-assed compared to the 15-step K-Beauty skincare protocols of today – but because Bateman represents an element of himself during that era.
“Part of why it's hard to reimagine Bateman anywhere else and at any other time is because of where I was during the years I was writing about him, both emotionally and physically,” Ellis wrote. “I find it stranger as I get older that one of the most archetypal characters in recent American fiction—someone who was to me a faceless and free-floating representation of yuppie despair—was actually a character based on my own anger and frustration set in a very specific place and time."
Even with this personal connection and the confines of time, one relic of his character's ultra-yuppie persona was having an unprecedented (or should I say, un-president-ed) resurgence as he penned his speculative, follow-up essay – the ‘80s real estate tycoon who would soon become the leader of the free world, Donald Trump. While throughout the book, Bateman idolizes the future President, it seems he may have changed his tune amid the MAGA-mania of the 2016 election and beyond. According to Ellis, it's possible the literary figure would feel “embarrassed” by part of 45's base – basically anyone who isn't a FiDi bro that can't get last-minute reservations at Dorsia.
“Trump today isn’t the Trump of 1987,” Ellis replied when Grow suggested Bateman would be a red-hat-sporting Trump train passenger. “He’s not the Trump of Art of the Deal. He seemed much more elitist in ’87, ’88. Now he seems to be giving a voice to white, angry, blue-collar voters. I think, in a way, Patrick Bateman may be disappointed by how Trump is coming off and who he’s connecting with," he continued. “To the guys that I was talking to in the Eighties when I was researching American Psycho, Donald Trump was an aspirational figure. That’s why the jokes are throughout the book. It wasn’t like I pulled that out of my hat; that was happening. And so I just thought it was funny that ‘OK, well, Patrick Bateman’s gonna be obsessed with Donald Trump. He’s gonna want to aspire to be Donald Trump.’ And I don’t know if he would think that today."
Christian Bale on the other hand – a.k.a the actor behind Patrick Bateman himself/ the occasional Batman – seemingly sided with Grow, implying that Trump's White House success would have inspired his iconic big-screen character well beyond his time as an NYC mogul.
“I mean, look, if someone had landed at that time and he was looking around for cultural alpha males, business-world alpha males, et cetera, then Tom Cruise certainly would have been one of those that he would have looked at and aspired to be and attempted to emulate,” Bale told MoveMaker. “Likewise, Donald Trump would have been somebody he would have looked at and said, ‘Ah, right. I need to have a little bit of that as well."
While it's unclear if Bateman took after his other muse diving headfirst into Scientology and well, making headlines for looking like a spitting image of Norm Macdonald at a baseball game, Bale implied his character would have likely followed in the footsteps of good ‘ol Donnie, taking a stab (pun very much intended) at landing himself in the Oval Office. “If Bateman were around today he’d probably be inspired to run for president," the star said.
All decade-specific aesthetics and presidential bids aside, the question of how Bateman would react to modern stimuli isn't as much of a question as it is a means of modern reflection. While it's always amusing to speculate how he'd navigate modern politics, 11 Madison Park going vegan, and his inevitable existential crisis about the obsolescence of business cards, it seems on some level, the answers don't matter. Even with all of these changes, the circumstances that created a fictional monster like Bateman are still going strong, meaning on some level, he, or the people he represents, still exist in various forms.
The wealth gap is wider than ever, Wall Street Bros still love f----ng with stocks for s--ts and giggles (to quote our favorite Doge-peddling Saturday Night Live host, Elon Musk, “Tesla stock price is too high imo”) and the wealthy seemingly evade consequences in aspects of everyday life. No Wall Street CEO's went to jail after the 2008 financial crisis. Ethan Couch (a.k.a “affluenza teen”) was slapped with 10 days probation after allegedly killing four in a drunk driving accident (although he later served time in the big house for violating probation). Hell, according to ProPublica's shocking report from this summer, it seems pretty much everyone from Michael Bloomberg to Warren Buffet allegedly evades income tax (accusations they've both denied).
In other words? The call is coming from inside our ultra-expensive, minimalist Upper West Side apartment, which notably does not have a view of Central Park, goddamnit. Even 30 years from its literary debut and more than two decades since its film adaptation hit the big screen, we still live in an environment conducive to creating a small (and hopefully less homicidal) army of IRL Patrick Batemans, a notion Harron reiterated in a 2020 interview with the AV Club.
“So it might’ve seemed like that was a past era, but we’ve never really left that era,” Harron said of the flick. “I think the only thing that happened is people got better at covering it up, paying lip service to feminism or whatever," she continued noting that her then 22-year-old daughter's favorite American Psycho scene was when “they’re all at dinner in the sushi restaurant and Bateman’s just blathering these liberal platitudes about what we have to do in society.”
She was like, 'yes, that’s what people do. It means nothing,'" she recalled. "Now, with people like Bateman, it’s more likely that you’ll get them paying lip service to ideas about gender equality or racial equality, but they won’t mean it. People cover things more now. It’s not as naked. The ’80s was a very naked time in terms of greed and exploitation.”
In other words, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. We may never know whether the events of the film were all but a dream, but on some level we do by virtue of the fact that life, always seems to imitate art – American Psycho included. Now if you'll excuse me, I really must be going – I have to return some videotapes.
Top Image: Lionsgate