American Psycho ending explained: Was it all in Patrick Bateman's head?
Breaking down what was real and what wasn't in the Christian Bale movie.
Bret Easton Ellis's opus American Psycho is a disturbed satire of wealth, greed and the Reaganite 1980s and all they stood for – including the ear-splitting pop of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis. The film, like the book, focuses on a stockbroker with a penchant for serial killing – the now iconically infamous Patrick Bateman.
In Mary Harron's adaptation of the controversial novel, Bateman is wholly embodied by Christian Bale in a star-making performance that stays faithful to Ellis's writing. Bateman begins his killing spree after his pride is wounded when he finds out Paul Allen (Jared Leto), a colleague and rival, has a better quality business card than he does.
His first victim is a homeless man and his dog before his egomania is wounded once again by Allen who mistakes him for another colleague. His fragile masculinity pushed beyond the pale, Bateman elaborately murders Allen in his own apartment while listening to Huey Lewis and the News before conducting a ruse that makes it look as if his fellow banker had flown to London.
The killing of Allen sets in motion the investigation into the prominent and wealthy man's disappearance – and also seemingly Bateman's bloodlust, as he kills hordes of women in increasingly grisly ways.
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Bateman's pièce de résistance is a shooting spree brought on by an ATM machine telling him to feed it a cat. In an increasingly OTT sequence, police cars are blown up, police officers are slaughtered and Bateman eventually makes a phone call confession to his lawyer, owning up to murdering an undisclosed number of people somewhere between 20 and 40, with the film then entering its denouement.
American Psycho ending explained
After Bateman confesses all of his crimes, he returns to Allen's apartment but finds no traces of any of his murders and the property put up for sale. Confused, he meets colleagues for lunch and bumps into his lawyer who took his confession for a practical joke. Bateman insists he actually did murder all of those people but the lawyer says he recently had lunch with Allen in London meaning the killing could never have taken place.
In a distressed, trance-like state, Bateman returns to his lunch as his colleagues discuss Ronald Reagan, and narrates that he is in pain and that he wishes to inflict pain on others.
Lots of people took the ambiguous ending to mean that Bateman never killed anyone and that it was all a fantasy or a dream, part of the stockbroker's twisted imagination to inflict pain on the world but is, as his lawyer puts it, too "square" to do so. This interpretation can also be backed up by the silliness of the final murder spree with its elongated chase and exploding police cars.
The other interpretation is that it all happened but nobody, in this empty world of high finance, noticed or cared. After all, several times in the film, multiple characters are mistaken for somebody else as yuppie bankers all look and dress the same.
American Psycho is of course a surreal satire so it would make sense for Bateman – a white man of immense wealth and privilege – to get away with killing women and homeless people as part of Ellis and Harron's takedown of societal structures that allow the powerful to get away with whatever they want.
Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote the adaptation, offered her take on the ending to MovieMaker magazine: "To me and Mary, the book left it up in the air, too, what was real and what was not real. We didn't think that everything was real because some of it is literally surreal. But we just decided, together, that we both really disliked movies where the big reveal is that it was all in someone's head or it was all a dream.
“We just both find that annoying. We just said we're going to make a really conscious effort to have it be real, and then at some point... he's sort of perceiving things differently, but they're really happening."
American Psycho is available to watch on LIONSGATE+ through Amazon Prime Video. The American Psycho novel by Bret Easton Ellis is also available to buy now.