American Psycho (2000), directed by Mary Harronhas, is based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel of the same name. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a young investment banker based in New York City, is a mannersome, goody two shoes by the day, but goes on murderous rampages at night. (Bale is a good choice to play Bateman, because his florid, sharply cut handsomeness already has something sinister about it.) He is being driven crazy by culture’s capitalist obsession with materialism — it eats him from within. He has a fiancée, Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon), who is completely unaware that he is a serial killer. The movie pares down, mercifully, the goriest passages from the book, but keeps the portrayal of New York City as this den of perdition, from which all the horror bubbles, intact.
Bateman often goes for drinks with his wealthy associates, even if he hates them with a vengeance. During one such social gathering, his colleagues and associates flaunt their business cards, but one in particular catches his eye. He notices that Paul Allen’s (Jared Leto) card is of a superior quality. This triggers Bateman, who murders a homeless man and his dog that very same night. Later, he lures Allen into his apartment, and then kills him with an axe while listening to the music of Hue Lewis and The News.
Bateman is unable to contain his murderous spree, which includes a model, an acquaintance, a female stranger instead of a cat, and a sex worker. Throughout this, Private Investigator Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), is trying to find out who murdered Paul Allen, and suspects Bateman. When Christie, a sex worker, who was tortured by Bateman during their first meeting, is trying to escape his clutches after he murders his acquaintance, she accidentally stumbles upon a space where there are piles of women’s dead bodies. It seems like the tons of murders Bateman committed before killing Allen had escaped the scrutiny of the local authorities, and the execution had been seamless. Later, he is also freed of suspicion by Kimball because a colleague claimed to have had dinner with Bateman on the day Allen was murdered, which gives Bateman an alibi.
But, slowly, with each murder, Bateman’s shadow self, and what he presents to the world, seem to be integrating. He breaks up with his fiancee, because these happenings have begun to bleed into his day life as an investment banker. How could they not when he had begun to kill people he actually knew from his day-to-day life?
Making a departure from the book, the movie decides to end on a more interpretative note, rather than offering the audiences something more definitive (in Ellis’s book, we know Bateman imagined the murders). Patrick Bateman goes to Paul Allen’s apartment to clean it up, but is instead told that the owner of the apartment was not Paul Allen. At this point, the fact of the murders is obscured from the audience. Did they even happen, or was Bateman just having a breakdown due to an obsession with a consumerist, power driven lifestyle?
Bateman confesses everything to his lawyer, and tells him about the multiple killings and his cannibalistic instincts. Through Jean (Chloe Sevigny), his secretary, we also come to know that Bateman has been drawing deeply disturbing and violent graphics. But when Bateman sees the lawyer, the lawyer is amused by the confession and just shrugs it off. When Bateman insists that he murdered Allen, the lawyer claims that he had dinner with Allen recently in London. Despite this claim, we see that Bateman is tortured by what he thinks he has done. Is it because his own delusions have gone this much further, or was it because inadvertently, people around him were complicit in covering up his crimes for him?
The movie, then, by rejecting the less ambiguous ending of the book, wants us to focus on its messaging instead. The substantive confession on Bateman’s part, just like the pursuits of his lifestyle, had ultimately rung hollow. He goes on to have lunch with his colleagues. Instead of relief, a crushing uncertainty suffocates him from within. The capitalistic culture that Bateman is trying to rebel against is present in the background both as a warning, and a prophecy.