From the moment Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho hit American bookshelves, people have been debating whether toxic, self-absorbed yuppie Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale in the film) is really committing the graphic murders he describes, or just hallucinating or fantasizing them. The film version only drove the debate into a higher gear. It’s one of those perennial questions that returns over and over to cinema-site comment sections, online discussion groups, the Straight Dope message boards—any gathering place for people who watch movies and have opinions. And over and over, these debates break down into ad hominem attacks and flat statements of opinion: “I think they’re real.” “Well, I think they aren’t.”
It’s naturally a polarizing question, because it doesn’t just reflect the events viewers see on the screen: It reflects what they feel. Like the similarly vehement, never-ending debate over the ending of Inception, or Total Recall, or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, or The Thing, or Blade Runner, or any other movie people relate to emotionally, the “What’s real?” question is really the question, “Deep down in your heart, what do you want the world to look like?” For those still trying to sort out the reality of American Psycho, consider this:
Taken entirely literally, the events onscreen offer plenty of reasons to think Patrick Bateman is imagining every act of violence in the film.
American Psycho has a tone of heightened, satirical, not-particularly-real reality that makes it difficult to take anything onscreen seriously. Businessmen who socialize with each other all the time can’t tell each other apart. Bateman frequently tells people he’s a murderer, and they never seem to hear him. Statements like, “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” elicit a chuckle or a blasé response. When he hacks up his associate Paul Allen, stuffs the man’s corpse into an overnight bag, and drags it out of his apartment building, leaving a thick trail of blood all the way through the lobby, the security guard doesn’t notice. An acquaintance who sees him bundling it into a taxi only expresses interest in the particular brand of the overnight bag.
As the film progresses, its grasp on reality becomes even more tenuous. A chainsaw dropped several stories down a stairwell happens to land perfectly on a fleeing victim, killing her. An ATM orders Bateman to feed it a stray cat. Bateman shoots at a police car, and it promptly explodes; in that moment, even he looks disbelievingly at his gun. These all seem like the daydreams of an increasingly disturbed man, one who isn’t even bothering to fit his fantasies into the real world anymore. And by the end, circumstances around Bateman are implying even more heavily that none of what he remembers doing to his enemies ever actually happened: His lawyer claims he just had lunch with Paul Allen, the man Bateman axe-murdered and stuffed into that swanky Jean Paul Gaultier overnight bag weeks ago. The additional bodies and destruction Bateman left at Paul’s apartment disappear, as if by magic. Although he remembers blowing up that police car, there’s no manhunt on for him. Even Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), the dogged detective with a seemingly supernatural ability to home in on Bateman’s favorite murder-music, loses the thread of pursuit. There’s nothing to tie any of this to reality: No lasting effects, no consequences, and no witnesses, apart from Bateman’s secretary Jean (Chloë Sevigny) finding his notebook full of scrawled obscenities and grotesquely graphic doodles. The film ends with Bateman zoned out and detached among his tedious friends, with the camera slowly, meaningfully zooming in on his eyes, as if trying to get behind them, back into the space where all the insanity is occurring. And yet…
There are reasons to think the murders are real, too.
It’s possible to justify most of what happens in American Psycho. Given the well-established theme of Bateman’s peers finding each other indistinguishable, it shouldn’t be a surprise when Detective Kimball gets an alibi for Bateman and drops his pursuit, or Bateman’s lawyer says he recently met up with Paul Allen in London. The murder victims aren’t missed because in the caustic, libertine, vacuous society Bateman lives in, all the businessmen are interchangeable. None of them seems to do anything meaningful, professionally or personally; none of them have real, emotional connections. If a few of them disappear here or there, it’s no significant loss.
The death of several policemen is weightier, except that Bateman eluded pursuit, they have no leads on him personally, and the only person who could point to him, the lawyer he confessed to, doesn’t believe him. The bodies at Paul Allen’s place disappear because a realtor cleans up Bateman’s bloody leavings for her own profit. Everyone else misses Bateman’s admissions of guilt because they’re so absorbed with their brands, their purchases, and their self-satisfaction that they just refuse to see or hear anything else. Or maybe they ignore him because when he calls someone an ugly bitch and says he wants to play in her blood, it just sounds like the kind of casual, self-congratulatory misogyny that everyone in his circle spouts on a daily basis. There’s so much smirking one-upmanship in the movie that even revealing a murder just reads like another desperate, bratty call for attention. And who has time to pay attention to anyone but themselves?
Another argument that American Psycho’s killings actually take place comes from the filmmakers themselves. In a much-circulated Charlie Rose interview that aired around the time of the film’s 2000 release, director and co-writer Mary Harron brought up the question:
“People keep coming out of this film thinking that it’s all a dream, and I never intended it. All I wanted was it to be ambiguous in the way that the book was. I think it’s a failing of mine in the final scene, that 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.”
According to the IMDb, her screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner makes the same point:
“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’… 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.”
There’s a lot more to that quote, about how the film is meant to devolve into Bateman’s increasingly demented perceptions (which explains the exploding police car and the ATM’s hunger for cats), but that none of these divergences from reality are meant to elide over the existence of actual murders: “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.” The degree to which the film hides Bateman’s reality behind his skewed self-image, and never offers a clear peek underneath, can cover any contingency: In effect, Turner is saying, “Anything that seems unreal in the film to you personally might be unreal. But somewhere under everything you see, no matter how implausible it seems, real murders in some form are taking place.”
Both sides have ammunition. Here’s why it isn’t worth fighting the war.
A few months back, Matt Singer wrote a Dissolve opinion piece about the “Cinematic Scene Investigators” who have come into vogue online, hunting down consensus opinions (“the one attribute the Internet loves—and increasingly, demands that its movies contain”) by attempting to “prove” the rightness of one theory or another about a movie. As he put it, “This obsession with finding the ‘answers’ frequently skews film conversations into fruitless tangents.” The American Psycho argument has become one of those fruitless tangents, because the people arguing it are too often getting bogged down in the most literal version of a highly metaphorical argument. They aren’t really debating the movie, so much as they’re dueling over their emotions—and about issues surrounding film in general.
Asking whether Bateman really kills people is asking what kind of story the movie is fundamentally telling. Whether his actions are real or in his head, he’s clearly psychotic. But is he a solitary, uniquely damaged product of a psychotic society, or just one more madman in a world where everyone’s gone mad? Perversely, the film’s story becomes more realistic and believable if all the bloody mayhem is just in Bateman’s head. But if so, the story loses some its satirical edge. Ellis meant for American Psycho to be an exploration of what was going wrong with him, and the culture around him, in the 1980s. If his story is just about one axe-happy serial killer, it’s a horror story. But it’s a bigger, smarter, more chilling satire if it’s about an entire crazy society, so lost to itself that sociopathic behavior goes unremarked and unpunished. So much of the debate about the film is really a debate about how responsible Bateman is for his actions. Is the world only sick enough to turn one man mad, or is it so absurd that any madman can express any amount of insane savagery, and still get away with it? Is this a scary story about a maniac, or a more frightening story about a larger systemic failure?
It’s also a debate about who gets to decide what art means. For some people arguing about the film online, those much-passed-about quotes from Harron and Turner are definitive proof: The filmmakers say Bateman does kill people. End of story. (Turner herself takes this tack. From a 2013 Reddit AMA, when asked yet again for her opinion about the reality of the killings, she started her response, “‘In my opinion’? I would think that whatever I think is what the truth is, and not just an opinion.”) Other people are more swayed by what they see onscreen, and how they interpret it for themselves. At that point, the conversation isn’t really about the movie anymore, it’s about authorial intent and its importance. Does a filmmaker get a vote in how audiences should interpret a film? Does the answer to that question change when the director says she “failed” to make her own vision clear? It’s up to individual viewers to decide for themselves how much weight they want to give her words, but either way, the conversation about authorial intent is a big, complex, nuanced one, with much bigger applications than the simple “Yes he did/no he didn’t” fencing.
And finally, it’s a debate about emotion, about who people relate to in the film, and how those characters make them feel. If Patrick Bateman isn’t really a murderer, if he’s just losing his mind, it’s possible to see him as a sympathetic figure. In the tempting interpretation where he’s the protagonist of the story rather than the villain, he’s seen most clearly when he’s weeping alone on the floor of a closed office, trying to make sense of his life, trying to reach out on the phone to someone who might actually get him the help he needs. As vapid, malicious, and angry as he is, there’s a core of something human in him, something that has mercy on Jean when they’re alone together, something that’s scared and discomfited when an associate mistakes his murderous advances for amorous ones. That human side is constantly frightened and threatened, and for viewers who identify with it, it’s hard to see Bateman as the feral jackal he sometimes becomes.
If he is a real-life killer, though, he’s past redemption, because he finds it so hard to emotionally connect with his crimes that it’s impossible to imagine him stopping the killing spree for long, especially when the consequences are all internal. It’s one thing to be gleeful to the point of hysteria when imagining killing a particularly competitive rival and ending his nonstop put-downs; it’s another to actually decorate the couch with the man’s blood. In deciding whether Bateman has actually acted on his impulses, viewers are deciding whether he’s still a person, worthy of hope—whether this is a story about one man either fighting or acting on his most nihilistic nature—or whether he’s just become a metaphorical force of nature, an impersonal representative of excess and debauchery.
In the end, there can never be one definitive answer about whether American Psycho’s killings are real, because the film doesn’t overtly, clearly state that answer. Everyone will add up the pieces according to their own separate internal calculus, according to how much they sympathize with poor, pathetic Patrick Bateman, or hate the maniac who attacks prostitutes with coat hangers, and drops chainsaws on them when they run. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether to place a higher value on what Harron and Turner say they wanted, or on what they actually put onscreen. (It has to be said, for a movie that supposedly failed to bring across a fundamental point, American Psycho is a gloriously accomplished, compelling, and chilling movie.) Everyone has to decide which is more important: The film’s literal execution, or metaphorical value. And everyone’s answers will be different. If we can get around the idea that there’s only one correct answer, and everyone has to agree on it, the conversation becomes much richer and more interesting, because it allows people to move beyond “He does” and “He doesn’t,” beyond “yes” and “no,” and into “why” and “why not.”
And if we really want to make things interesting, we can acknowledge that we don’t actually have to make the choice. In terms of common-sense, familiar reality, it seems unlikely that Bateman could get away with so much, so cleanly. On a symbolic level, where he’s just one of many well-groomed balls of tense, hypersexualized aggression looking for an outlet, he can do anything he wants because the point is both that he finds no satisfaction in even the most antisocial and deviant acts, and that his social class no longer sees any harm in them. Either way, the point is the same: He’s in a permissive, apathetic environment that doesn’t care what he does, so long as he’s rich, handsome, owns the right things, and runs with the right crowd. In that light, it seems almost pedantic to fuss over the question of whether it lets him get away with actual murder, or just with living as a rich, pampered, useless monster whose lifestyle has pushed him to constantly imagine murder. The imagery, the mentality, and the execution of the film are all more absorbing than trying to pin down the literal meaning of every moment.
Honestly, that goes for so many of the films that turn the Internet on its ear. It’s worth debating who the alien is at the end of The Thing, or whether Deckard is a replicant, or whether the top wobbles in Inception. But pinning these questions down to yes/no is so much less interesting than examining what the filmmakers meant when they created them in the first place, and what they say about the meaning of the films themselves.
And for what it’s worth, Ellis doesn’t want to pick sides either: “Regarding the murders,” he said in a Shortlist interview, “I was always on the fence about whether they were fantasy or real. I don’t know and I prefer it that way.” As execrable as his other opinions can be, maybe in this case, he has the right idea.
This wraps our Movie Of The Week discussion of American Psycho. Don’t miss Nathan Rabin’s kickoff essay on how the women behind the film subversively reversed some of the book’s smug macho malice, and our staff Forum on the film’s icy sense of control and warmed-over sense of music criticism. And next week, we’ll take up our first silent feature: Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. We hope you’ll join us.