Seven PsychopathsI once had this dream about these kids who had formed a kind of cult where they set themselves on fire to prove how cool they were. The dream had a profound effect on me, resulting in years of writing and research. It ended in what I call a "theatrical essay" called Burned. Much of that time, I was obsessed with Thich Quang Duc: the first Buddhist monk to self-immolate in protest over the South Vietnamese government headed by Ngo Dinh Diem.

This came up because I spend a couple of hours this afternoon watching Seven Psychopaths. The ending of the film tells a fictional story of Thich Quang Duc's thinking while preparing for his ritual suicide. And it bugged me for a number of reasons. They didn't seem to be interested in getting it right. Worst of all was this repeated refrain, "This will not help our cause." (That's rough; I didn't write it down.) Finally, he responds, "It might." The truth is that Thich Quang Duc's act had a profound effect on events. Diem was gone less than 5 months later as a direct result.[1]

In a sense, I was glad that the story included Thich Quang Duc. He is a great man and he deserves to be remembered. Here is David Halberstam's report at the time:

I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly.[2] Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think ... As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

But this was included in a film that played very loose with people torturing others with fire—and other things that were hard to take like sawing a live man's head off with a hacksaw. So the tribute to Thich Quang Duc was less compelling than it could have been.

By saying this, I don't mean to say the film is bad. It is actually quite good. And funny. I laughed a lot. And parts of the movie were kind of deep. For example, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is a clear psychopath, but all of his acts of violence are done out of his love of his friends. (I could have done without the Taxi Driver gag.) And after all the dark comedy throughout the film, the Thich Quang Duc ending was touching.

Afterword

Seven Psychopaths has a very grainy look. Watching it, I thought it had been filmed on Super-16. This appears not to be the case, because I didn't see it mentioned anywhere. But it didn't look processed—just bad. If anyone knows anything, let me know.



[1] There were many other problems. Some were minor: his corpse did not fall over like they showed. Others were profound: the idea that Thich Quang Duc's suicide was an act of vengeance—and even worse: vengeance against America. Yes, I'm making too much out of this.

[2] Halberstam is wrong about this. Humans have a lot of water in them and so tend to burn poorly. However, drenched in gasoline, human beings burn surprisingly quickly.