The real meaning of American Psycho is hard to decipher, as the film’s deeply psychotic protagonist and ambiguous ending make its general message somewhat difficult to unravel — here’s American Psycho explained. Based the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel, American Psycho follows New York investment banker and unchecked serial killer Patrick Bateman. Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman is iconic and secured American Psycho a cult following that’s endured over two decades. Patrick Bateman indulges his most violent urges in American Psycho, acting on every sadistic impulse without any consequence in his Wall Street life. The film was every bit as controversial as Ellis’ novel — little surprise when Ellis himself considered the literary Bateman’s descent into depravity and true madness too shocking for cinema.

American Psycho’s ending culminates on a decidedly ambiguous note which calls many of the previous events of the narrative into question. Many viewers come to the conclusion American Psycho made use of the oft-bemoaned “it was all a dream” trope. However, director Mary Harron (who co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner) has stated that this isn’t the case. Instead, American Psycho explained Bateman’s true nature, rephrasing the entire story in a new light, even if it is easy to miss. The fact the ending is so often debated illustrates that many miss the meaning of American Psycho, as it is at the finale when its themes are laid bare.

Related: Why Patrick Bateman Was Cut From Rules Of Attraction & Who Played Him

American Psycho Uses Real Violence As A Stand-In For Corporate Greed

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho 2000

American Psycho’s meaning, at its very core, is a commentary on the inherent violence of corporate greed. Christian Bale’s movie roles are carefully picked, and he has a preference for stories that dig deep into human nature. Patrick Bateman’s casual cruelty and violent sadism are key elements of his characterization, and why he’s such a cultural icon. The carnage he causes is a direct example of American Psycho’s over-arcing metaphor — violence as a stand-in for corporate greed. The murder spree in American Psycho starts with Bateman being selective and deliberate but escalates for increasingly trivial reasons. This directly parallels the callous corporate violence Bateman et al. enact on a whim every day in their Wall Street, making decisions that cause financial ruin for others just to brag in the boardroom.

American Psycho explained that its violence represents rampantly spiraling greed. Bateman’s bloodlust is as insatiable as his colleagues’ thirst for profit. His murder of Paul Allen (a rare horror movie appearance for Jared Leto) is a key piece of evidence for this, as it represents Bateman’s willingness to get ahead by killing his colleagues and competitors. However, the film’s ending sees Bateman seemingly getting away with his actions, proving the indifference that others in his social circles feel towards that level of violence.

On a superficial level, the violence of American Psycho may seem excessive and gratuitous where the story’s concerned, but that the violence is so excessive and goes largely unnoticed hits on the absurdity of Bateman’s sadism — and thus the absurdity of real-life Wall Street’s. Through its brilliant cinematic narrative, American Psycho explained real-life corporate greed through the much more visceral and relatable elements of raw, unhinged violence. Notably, abandoning these compelling themes is why the sequel American Psycho 2: All American Girl didn’t do as well as the movie.

American Psycho Is Actually About Patrick Bateman’s Moral Awakening

Christian Bale wielding an axe as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

What’s less obvious is that American Psycho is actually about Patrick Bateman gaining – not losing – his moral clarity. After Bateman murders his co-worker Paul Allen, American Psycho explained that Bateman’s grip on his double life begins to unravel, as the veil between his two personas begins to slip. As this threatens to consume Bateman entirely, American Psycho ends with him attempting to force others to hold him accountable for his actions. Indeed, it’s clear that the film’s story follows Bateman as he begins to make sense of the person he has become.

Related: American Psycho 2: The Actor Who Replaced Christian Bale As Patrick Bateman

When he can no longer contain the casual cruelty of his hidden persona, his life begins to fall apart, although none of his colleagues seem to care — another moment American Pyscho’s theme of corporate callousness shows. In fact, the bodies disappearing from Paul’s apartment in American Psycho explained that the world around Patrick doesn’t care about his actions, even as he attempts to come clean. This actually makes American Psycho‘s ending one in which Bateman has regained his senses while the world around him remains oblivious to their own greed and corruption, and the ambiguous note it ends on is one that asks the question: will Bateman return to his old ways, or will he walk away from the life he’s begun to outgrow?

Patrick Bateman Is Meant To Be An Unreliable Narrator (Because Of His Identity Crisis)

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

One of the most common misunderstandings about American Psycho stems from its ambiguous ending painting Patrick Bateman as an unreliable narrator. However, the fact that the ending calls Bateman’s integrity into question is exactly the point, as it feeds into one of the film’s most consistent themes: identity. A key piece of evidence for this is during American Psycho’s mistaken identity moment when Paul confuses Bateman for Marcus Halberstram, triggering the violent murder of Paul Allen (and Bateman’s subsequent moral awakening).

American Psycho explained that the idea that Bateman is in the throes of an identity crisis also fits with the film’s message about greed. Though Bateman has been enjoying the affluent lifestyle his own greed and corruption has bought him, he’s no longer sure exactly who he is. This identity crisis is at the core of his psychosis, and though it makes him an unreliable narrator, it doesn’t necessarily do so in the way that the most common interpretation of American Psycho‘s ending would suggest.

Why American Psycho’s Ambiguous Ending Doesn’t Matter

Patrick Bateman with an axe in American Psycho.

The ending of the movie is deliberately ambiguous. The hidden meaning of American Psycho wouldn’t be such a talking point if it wasn’t, after all. However, it’s not intended to call Bateman’s actions into question, but rather his motives. One of the reasons that American Psycho gets better upon rewatching is that the finer details point towards a far more satisfying conclusion: the ambiguity of the ending is exactly the point.

Related: American Psycho Almost Cast Leonardo DiCaprio: Why He Didn’t Get The Role

As American Psycho explained, Patrick Bateman as an unreliable narrator, it’s easy to assume that the murders didn’t happen. Instead, the ending should call into question why no one else is addressing Bateman’s troubling comments, and that’s where its real ambiguity comes in. The fact that none of Bateman’s friends and colleagues are willing to entertain his admission of guilt as serious evidence that they are all as unreliable as he is, and that all of American Psycho‘s characters are every bit as guilty as Bateman.

Misinterpreting American Psycho May Be Fueling Extremism

Christian Bale in American Psycho wearing suit

American Psycho‘s success has raised questions about whether Patrick Bateman’s character actually fueled extremism — a concern that often rises when a movie complexly examines morality using violence as a lens. American Psycho release back in 2000, and it’s interesting how decades late movies like Joker, one of the most controversial movies of the 2010s, still have to tackle the same issues (and rebuff the same critique). Like Joker director Todd Phillips, American Psycho director Mary Harron has had to deal with not just the controversial audience and critical reception, but also the possibility that misinterpretations about the movie could be reinforcing anti-social movements and ideologies. Harron explained (via Vulture) how Bateman and the Joker, both incredibly violent psychopaths, are so impactful because they naturally put audiences in an uncomfortable position. As Harron said:

Even though I think the movie is pretty clear — this guy is psycho — you’ve followed him through his vulnerability and his being humiliated and neglected and used by the world and the people around him. And there’s an element where you’re identifying with him. The same conversation happens over and over every so often with a film that is upsetting or disturbing, which is a part of what movies are and do. Then everything settles down. It’s crazy to me that everyone talks about American Psycho in such reverent terms.

While American Psycho and similar movies like Joker and Fight Club critique masculine toxicity, it’s plain they can inadvertently inspire these same anti-social elements in society. Sadly, it seems that American Psycho explained Patrick Bateman’s psychotic nihilism as endearing by some incredibly lost individuals — an aspiration, rather than a warning. That said, just like how the controversy about Joker and Fight Club actually helped prop up these movies, so the social criticisms do the same for American Psycho.

While the iconic status of these movies is well-deserved, particularly because of how their respective controversies reveal how deeply they tap into human nature, it’s definitely still worth examining how these highly influential cultural products can actually change people’s actions and ways of thinking. Perhaps future movies like American Psycho should come with a clear disclaimer that it’s a critique of the behaviors shown and not an endorsement. Even if Patrick Batman has inspired real-life extremism though, the fault doesn’t lie with director Mary Harron or the movie itself — no movie is responsible for real-life violence.

Related: Christian Bale Was Almost In The OG Batman Vs Superman… As Superman!

What Christian Bale Thinks Of American Psycho’s True Meaning

American Psycho's Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) peels a face mask.

American Psycho explained some of Bateman’s most unsavory views and practices, but what does actor Christian Bale think of his role as the iconic character? Sitting down with GQ, Bale discussed some of his most prolific acting roles, and the topic of Patrick Bateman came up. To prepare for the role, Bale reportedly spent some time on Wall Street at the NYC stock exchange and got to experience what it was like on the trading floor in real time. He had various conversations with the men that American Psycho was supposed to be depicting, and some of their comments turned out to be troubling. “[…] but the guys on the trading floor, when I arrived there before making the film, I got there and a bunch of ’em, they were going ‘oh yeah, we love Patrick Bateman’. And I was like, ‘yeah, ironically, right?’, and they were like, ‘what do you mean?’ So it was always worrying even back then,” the Thor actor said.

The remarks of these individuals are certainly worrisome. American Psycho was meant to critique toxic masculinity, and Patrick Bateman was never meant to be a sympathetic character. The fact that people in positions of power and affluence could sympathize and even “love” Bateman’s character proves that there’s a larger problem beneath the surface. While the people on the trading floor that Bale met may find something positive in Bateman’s character, at least The Dark Knight actor understands what Patrick Bateman from American Psycho was supposed to represent.

Next: Every Major Movie Role Christian Bale Turned Down

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