When discussing the best serial killer movies of all time, the 2000 film American Psycho has to at least enter the conversation. The film starred Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a filthy rich investment banking executive who dives deeper and deeper into his psychotic homicidal fantasies as the film goes on. However, it might not even be correct to call American Psycho a “serial killer movie” because the events toward the end of the film raise serious doubts as to whether Patrick Bateman actually killed anyone or whether it was all inside of his sick, sadistic mind.
The untrustworthiness of Patrick Bateman as a narrator hinges mostly on the fact that his lawyer Harold claims that Paul Allen (who the audience believes is Bateman’s first murder victim) is still alive and the fact that Paul Allen’s apartment (where Bateman was apparently killing people and stashing their bodies) was empty and never belonged to Paul Allen at all. Upon these revelations, the audience is no longer sure if any of the events in the movie actually happened or if we had just spent the last 104 minutes watching Bateman’s bloodthirsty fantasies play out in his mind.
Even after watching the film several times, it’s still unclear whether Bateman actually committed any of the crimes we see him commit throughout the course of the film. It’s very possible that he was sitting behind his desk the entire time and having vivid hallucinations about killing and dismembering people. Then again, there are parts of the movie that make it seem implausible that Bateman could’ve committed no crimes at all. Let’s take a look back at some of the key moments of the film that give us some insight as to what actually happened.
Paul Allen Was Still Alive
Paul Allen, played by Jared Leto, is a rival of Bateman’s and almost seems like an embodiment of the obsessive materialism that Bateman and his friends are so caught up with throughout the entire film. Allen has a stunningly beautiful business card, wears expensive suits, and can always get reservations at Dorsia, the highly coveted restaurant referenced about a thousand times in the film. Bateman can’t stand that Allen is constantly outdoing him and, naturally, wants to kill him.
In an extremely chilling yet entertaining scene, Bateman gets Allen extremely drunk and brings him back to his apartment to listen to some Huey Lewis and the News. Allen, drunk and unaware, doesn’t notice that Bateman is dressing himself in a transparent raincoat and fetching an axe from his bathroom as the two of them are talking. Next thing you know, Bateman is driving the axe into Allen’s head and yelling, “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!” And the audience assumes that Paul Allen is dead.
In an attempt to cover up the murder, Bateman steals Allen’s keys and uses them to break into his apartment and leave a voicemail on his phone saying that he was taking a trip to London. However, to Bateman’s chagrin, the fake voicemail does not work as planned and a detective named Donald Kimball comes to his office the next day and references a suspicious voicemail.
But here’s where things get complicated. Towards the end of the movie, Bateman’s lawyer Harold claims that he had dinner with Paul Allen in London only a few days earlier, which would imply that Allen was alive and had actually gone to London. Hadn’t Bateman killed Allen and then made up a fictional trip to London to explain his disappearance? Well, it might not be that simple.
Bateman then goes to Paul Allen’s apartment where Bateman had been killing people for weeks, or so the audience was led to believe. When he arrives at Allen’s, though, all of the body-filled closets are empty and he’s greeted by a realtor who informs him that no one named Paul Allen had ever lived there.
At this point, the audience should realize the narration of Patrick Bateman has been completely untrustworthy the entire time. We can no longer say for sure that anything in the film actually happened, as everything is relayed from the point of view of the psychotic and delusional Bateman.
The Chainsaw, the Cat, and the Explosion
These final revelations about Paul Allen still being alive aren’t the only clues in the film that Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator. Personally, I found the scene where he murders the sex worker (who he nicknames “Christie”) by dropping a chainsaw on her down a flight of stairs quite unrealistic. Of course, dropping a chainsaw with perfect timing so that it lands in the back of a fleeing victim seems extremely difficult to execute, but there’s also the fact that no one saw this going on.
As Christie is fleeing from a nude and blood-covered Bateman, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs and banging on neighboring doors. Bateman isn’t being especially quiet either as he runs through the hallway revving a chainsaw. How did no one hear this unless Paul Allen is the only person who lived in that apartment building (which seems rather unlikely in a ritzy Manhattan apartment building)? It seems likely that Bateman never killed Christie, or at least didn’t kill her in such a dramatic and conspicuous fashion.
There’s also the scene where Bateman goes to the ATM and it reads, “FEED ME A STRAY CAT.” This is quite a clear indication that Bateman is experiencing visual hallucinations, as I think it’s safe to assume that there are no ATMs in New York City asking for patrons to feed them stray animals. At least, I hope not.
As Bateman is holding the barrel of a gun to the head of a stray cat, trying to obey the machine’s request, an old lady sees him and he shoots her instead. These gunshots attract the attention of the police and Bateman goes on the run.
Eventually getting cornered by cops, Bateman starts to shoot at them and ends up blowing up a group of squad cars in a ball of fire with only a small pistol. Surprised that such a small pistol could have caused so much destruction, he stares at the pistol incredulously. It seems likely to me that this encounter with the police probably never happened at all, and that it was all just another hallucination in Bateman’s mind.
In another scene, Jean (Bateman’s receptionist) discovers a notebook in Bateman’s desk filled with disturbing images of violence, many of which depict murders that happened earlier in the film. While some viewers might take this as an affirmation that Bateman was simply fantasizing about these killings and never actually carried them out, I would say that that’s jumping to conclusions.
I don’t feel that the notebook really proves anything either way. Perhaps one could say it suggests that Bateman was sitting at his desk and fantasizing throughout the entire film, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say a real homicidal maniac would also draw his past murders in a notebook to relive them or memorialize them. For that reason, I don’t think the notebook helps us draw any conclusions.
Did He Actually Kill Anyone?
In an interview with Charlie Rose, director Mary Harron said, “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.” Indeed, after reading the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it certainly seems as if the audience is supposed to come to the conclusion that Bateman killed people.
The entirety of the film is supposed to be a satire of yuppie Manhattan finance society and is meant to highlight how none of the characters know anything about each other beyond the surface level. Bateman could be a deranged serial killer (and it would seem that he actually might be), but no one would ever notice because they’re too busy worrying about what kind of suit he’s wearing or what the lettering on his business card looks like.
There are also many scenes in American Psycho in which Bateman is mistaken for someone else, which serves to highlight the lack of individualism in his social circle but also opens up the possibility that Harold didn’t actually meet Paul Allen in London, but instead met with another interchangeable finance guy that he thought was Paul Allen. If this is true, then the film seems to be making a statement that one of these Wall Street cronies could go missing and no one would notice because they’re all so similar.
At the end of the day, we can’t really know which parts of the film are hallucinations and which events actually happened, but that’s not really the point. The point is that Patrick Bateman is full-on losing his mind throughout the entire film, either having deranged homicidal fantasies or actually murdering people on a nightly basis, and no one notices whatsoever. As long as Bateman shows up to the office in his fancy suit and glasses; as long as he drives a nice car; as long as he has a cushy apartment in the “right” part of town, he’s assumed to be just another member of the crowd. Who cares if he’s chopping people up in his free time?