American Psycho Ending: What Really Happened? Alternate Theories

The ending of Mary Harron’s American Psycho, like that of the Bret Easton Ellis book on which it is based, has long been a source of debate among fans.

The story twists and turns as it nears its conclusion, and the audience is left wondering how much of the story is real and how much is Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman’s imagination.

It’s been a long-running dispute, but we’re ready to settle it. Like with The Prestige and Clue, we’ve studied the end of American Psycho in great detail to figure out what’s happening and how it relates to the rest of the movie.

Which of the following is true of our investigation? What’s going on here? 

What Happens At The End Of The Film 

Remembering the events leading up to the final scene in American Psycho is essential, and it all starts with a seemingly innocuous act: Patrick Bateman going to the ATM.

However, this attempt to withdraw cash ends up taking a very different path than most people’s attempts to do so. The bank’s software tells our protagonist to feed a stray cat.

The main character is on board with this idea, and there happens to be a kitten nearby—but Bateman gets interrupted before he can shoot the animal and shove it into the cash dispenser. Bateman’s night begins with an unwelcome interruption: a visibly alarmed woman who becomes his first victim.

After this killing is discovered, Bateman is immediately involved in a chase and a shootout with the police. While only carrying a pistol, he manages to kill at least two police officers and blow up one of the squad cars despite being trapped in an open alleyway.

The protagonist even stares at his gun in disbelief as he tries to comprehend what’s going on. But his psychotic and violent night is just getting started.

The security guard at Pierce & Pierce recognizes Bateman, calling him “Mr. Smith” as he wanders around the building without a destination in mind.

The protagonist shoots and kills the guard and a janitor as he exits through a revolving door, presumably to avoid leaving any witnesses. He then makes his way to Pierce & Pierce, which is located in a nearly identical building to the one where he works.

Bateman confesses to his lawyer, Harold (Stephen Bogaert), over the phone as he hides under his desk from the searchlights of a helicopter. He admits to all the heinous acts he has committed to an answering machine, some of which we have seen in the film and others that we haven’t seen.

He claims to have killed between 20 and 40 people, including Paul Allen (Jared Leto) and doesn’t believe he can continue to do so. Afterward, he tells his lawyer where he will meet him the following day and hangs up the phone.

After this point, everything we thought we knew about American Psycho comes crashing down. No, the Paul Allens live in Bateman’s apartment, and a realtor explains that Bateman has been storing body parts in the apartment.

A notebook found by Jean (Chloe Sevigny) seems to reflect her boss’s psychosis, and we are left to wonder if it’s all his fantasy. Bateman drops the real bombshell on his way to the bar to meet with his lawyer.

When Harold first sees Patrick Bateman, he thinks he’s seeing someone else and believes the message he received was a joke, with the punchline being that Bateman is a serial killer.

Despite the hysterical protagonist’s best efforts to convince the lawyer that Paul Allen is a natural person, the lawyer dismisses his claims as “impossible,” noting that he had just seen Allen in London a few days prior. As a result, Bateman is inconsolable, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of the pain he has inflicted on himself.American Psycho Ending

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What Do We Think Happened In American Psycho’s Ending? 

Patrick Bateman is insane, but the big question at the end of American Psycho is whether he is actually killing people or just having hallucinations and using his vivid imagination to get away with things.

Bateman kills many people in the movie, but he doesn’t kill Paul Allen in the end.

This conclusion can be reached by taking the film’s evidence at face value. Detective Donald Kimball is leading the investigation into Harold’s claim that he saw Paul Allen in London, as well as the murder-free apartment (Willem Dafoe).

Bateman appears to be on the verge of being arrested for the murder of Allen for much of the film, but Kimball drops the case when he discovers that the protagonist has an alibi.

Exactly how did this occur? The whole thing was a dream for Bateman because he never actually killed Allen. American Psycho’s main character’s obsession and extreme hatred of Paul Allen are well established throughout the film. Still, it’s that passion that could easily explain how everything involving Allen’s murder just played out in Bateman’s head.

All that we see with the newspaper, a wet raincoat, and an ax is nothing more than a strikingly realistic illusion. Using Bateman’s outgoing answering machine message, Allen’s trip to London could have been incorporated into Bateman’s fantasy.

While I believe that he has killed many people (such as the homeless man played by Reg E. Cathey and the prostitutes), it’s interesting to note that the movie also provides viewers with a great deal of doubt regarding the scope of Bateman’s offenses.

Everything in the third act of American Psycho establishes our view of the world as seen through the protagonist’s eyes, which is crucial to understanding the film’s shocking conclusion.

When an ATM displays the message “Feed Me A Stray Cat,” it isn’t real, and Bateman’s run from the cops is exaggerated to the point where you begin to doubt even the smallest of details of reality. Again, this is a manifestation of his irrational psyche.

Individual viewers will have to decide how far this concept can be applied to the rest of the film, but it has the potential to go either way.

When it comes down to it, American Psycho’s brilliant ending isn’t about whether or not Patrick Bateman killed zero people, a few homeless people, or everyone he listed in his answering machine message (minus Paul Allen).

The satire in Bateman’s admission of his heinous crimes and no one taking him seriously is meant to be the more significant takeaway.

Since “inside doesn’t matter,” he’s become a mystery to himself and the rest of us, only knowing that his true motivations are to inflict the pain of his own heart on others. The number of people he may or may not have killed is insignificant, just like the film’s existence as Bateman’s confession.American Psycho Ending

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Alternative Theories

There are several competing theories about how American Psycho’s final scene was staged. One of the most popular is that Patrick Bateman shot and killed everyone, including Paul Allen.

If you’re going to believe this, you’ll have to accept the movie’s third act fantasy and delusion as fact, but there is a case to be made. How? The film’s deep, deep satire is the key.

When other characters repeatedly fail to recognize Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the film’s protagonist is painted as nothing more than a face in a yuppie crowd. With his job, Valentino suits, and Oliver Peoples glasses serving as his disguise, he has become invisible.

As a result of his invisibility, he is free to go on a murderous rampage through New York City’s downtown without being noticed. And once again, his eminence makes it impossible for anyone to believe his ludicrous tale of death and destruction.

This same satirical explanation can also explain Bateman’s encounter with his lawyer in the film’s final scene about the “murder” of Paul Allen specifically.

Aside from the fact that Allen is depicted as a larger-than-life character throughout the film, it’s not impossible to imagine that others also perceive him as just another Bateman-esque character.

For all we know, Harold had dinner with someone who looked like Paul Allen in London, but it’s not our primary theory because the honest Paul dissolved in the bathtub in Hell’s Kitchen (as Bateman suggested in his confession).

However, when you consider Paul Allen’s apartment at the movie’s end, this theory loses a wheel. However, the realtor’s presence and apparent ignorance of Paul Allen’s identity do not support the idea that Bateman cleaned up after himself because the place appears so sterile.

The fact that American Psycho’s protagonist killed his nemesis goes a long way to discrediting the theory that he did so.American Psycho Ending

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What The Filmmakers Say 

According to reports, writer/director Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner have admitted that they don’t like how the ending of American Psycho came together.

To avoid a cliffhanger ending, they believe it is necessary to leave the audience wondering if the whole story is a dream at the end. They want it to be known that Patrick Bateman is, in fact, a serial killer.

Speaking to Charlie Rose about American Psycho’s ending during an interview a few years ago, Harron explained that it was never her intention to get viewers to rethink the death and murder that had taken place throughout the film.

Because she couldn’t match the original novel’s ending, she believes she didn’t convey the movie’s message well enough. She elaborated.

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.

A roundtable discussion involving author Bret Easton Ellis and actor Christian Bale can be viewed here:

Guinevere Turner also explains that, while the film’s narrative does become more and more heightened, it’s not meant to suggest that Patrick Bateman isn’t killing anyone. Instead, it’s meant to signify the point of view that we’re looking through.”

Most of what we’re seeing is real, but there are a few minor differences in the fine details. She explains, according to IMDb, that

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.

Is this what you took away from the movie? Is Patrick Bateman to blame for Paul Allen’s death or not?

In your opinion, how many of these other victims are alive and well? Take part in the discussion by commenting below!

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