Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s Chopper is not only one of the best Australian films in years but also a terrific contribution to the crime movie genre. It begins with the advantage of a remarkable central figure, Mark Brandon Chopper Read, a violent but charismatic real-life criminal who became a media figure in Australia following the publication of From the Inside, Read’s own best-selling account of his life of crime. Possessing an off-the-wall sense of humour (one of his books is entitled How to Shoot Friends and Influence People) to match his violent streak, Read caught the public’s imagination and became the stuff of legend. Now living in Tasmania, he continues to publish books and records.
Dominik drew on Read’s books as well as police records when writing his script, but Chopper is anything but a straightforward biography. The film uses Chopper’s awful deeds as the basis for an exploration of pathological behaviour that combines graphic violence with surreal black humour.

It’ a tricky approach, but Dominik succeeds in avoiding the twin pitfalls of demonising or mythologising his larger than life protagonist. This success is due in large measure to the film’ highly stylised approach to characterisation and staging. Chopper is played by Eric Bana, a stand-up comedian and expert impersonator who is equally convincing whether his character is terrifying, funny or pathetic. Similarly, Dominik’s visual approach varies from the bleached-out look of the early prison scenes set in the ’70s to the garish colours of the ex-con’ world in ’80s Melbourne. The images reflect the protagonist’s state of mind as effectively as they do in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Like Scorsese, Dominik can be accused of indulging his outlandish protagonist, but the criticism that his film in some way condones Chopper’s actions is patently absurd. The director approaches Chopper as a child-like figure who cannot control his impulses. Chopper, says Dominik, is not the kind of guy who commits crime in order to make money: he’s a problem child just trying to work out some kind of dynamic.2 Such a rationalisation goes some way towards explaining Chopper’s more absurd antics, such as apologising to his victims after viciously assaulting or shooting them. His first major crime was to kidnap a judge who had sent his friend Jimmy Loughnan to Melbourne’s notorious maximum security prison. Landing in jail with Jimmy, Chopper recklessly sets about reasserting himself by attacking a hardened criminal. Quickly gaining a reputation as an-out-of-control wild man, Chopper is subsequently stabbed by Jimmy. Fearing further retribution, he has another inmate chop off his ears with a razor (the film’s most graphic scene) so that he can escape from the security wing.

The film’s second act sees Chopper stalking around Melbourne, driven by resentment and guilt, searching for hidden enemies and unable to differentiate between fact and fiction. The ex-con’s fearsome reputation precedes him, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and isolated. Armed to the teeth, he ends up killing a minor criminal but manages to beat the charge by virtue of his now well-honed storytelling skills. In a brilliant stoke, Dominik illustrates the gap between cold reality and Chopper’s colourful fantasies by providing three different versions of this killing. The first version shows the senseless murder as it probably happened, while subsequent variations are representations of Chopper’s imaginary interpretations.

The film’s jet-black comedy derives from the discrepancy between Chopper’s sayings and his actions. Yet despite its sometimes outrageous humour, this is a serious and courageous movie about a murderously sad individual.

As Dominik has said in defence of making such a violent character the subject of his first feature film, If you want to do anything about crime, you must go to the guy who commits it and find out what is going on in his head. Chopper fully vindicates this position and emerges as one of the most imaginative movies about criminals since Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers of 1969.

Australia, 2000.
Dolby digital stereo.
94 min.

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