Down and Dirty

Chopper exploits its gory subject to paint a portrait of the criminal mind

Chopper, the first feature from Australian video director Andrew Dominik, is a strong, effective, but often stomach-churning portrait of notorious Aussie criminal Mark "Chopper" Read. It can be characterized as sensational -- in both the positive and negative senses of the word.

According to the filmmakers, Chopper Read is a legend Down Under -- a legend that he himself may have deliberately fostered. He is much like the villains in the recent film 15 Minutes, a sociopath who deliberately tries to exploit, for both status and money, the connection between crazed criminal behavior and media infamy. Dominik makes this theme clear by starting the film with Chopper (Eric Bana) sitting in his prison cell -- apparently circa 1990 -- watching himself being interviewed on a Melbourne TV station. He is relishing his own performance, comparing notes with two starstruck guards who are watching along with him.

We then flash back to "H Division, Pentridge Prison, 1978," where a younger, thinner Chopper is engaged in some sort of senseless turf war with another inmate. Chopper's two buddies -- Jimmy (Simon Lyndon) and Bluey (Dan Wyllie) -- may be lowlifes, but they're not totally nuts: They want Chopper to chill, but he is playing by some code that is never quite clear. Indeed even he seems baffled and regretful about the results of his violent impulses. Chopper is, to put it mildly, the quintessential loose cannon. In the short run, he isn't even capable of acting in his own self-interest half the time. His behavior creates so much heat that pretty soon all the other prisoners seem to unite against him. He generates such universal ill will that he has to mutilate himself to get transferred from his cell block and the certain death that awaits him.

Now, this is all in the first half-hour, and a note of caution is in order: Even seasoned violence freaks whose idea of a good chuckle includes the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan should be forewarned about the three blood-soaked, gut-wrenching scenes that dominate the first third of Chopper.

The rest of the film follows our hero roughly ten years later, when he's briefly out of stir. Careening around Melbourne, Chopper -- simultaneously wily and imbecilic -- is alternately taunting, uncontrollably angry, and (in a strange, shallow sense) genuinely repentant about his behavior. In fact his mood shifts make him scarier than if he were simply consistently violent -- much like the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas or De Niro's Jake La Motta in some of the later, fatter scenes in Raging Bull.

We watch him bully and beat everybody he meets, even those he, in his fashion, loves -- his former best friend, Jimmy, and his girlfriend, Tanya (Kate Beahan). (Not to mention decking Tanya's poor old mum.) He particularly goes after drug dealer Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo), who keeps forgiving him and is only repaid with further abuse. The only one spared this treatment is Chopper's dad, a loony old coot whose attitude suggests some degree of explanation for Chopper's manners.

It's more than usually difficult to know how much of the story to believe. For a start the film is at least loosely based on books by Chopper himself. (Yes, that's right: Our boy manages to parlay his viciousness into a career as a bestselling writer.) And he apparently cooperated with the filmmakers (without exercising any editorial control); the already released European DVD has two commentary tracks -- one by the director and one by his subject. But the problem goes deeper than that. Even within the film we see contradictory versions of events. Chopper lies to everybody about everything, whenever it suits his immediate needs. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn," he laughingly suggests to a reporter at one point. In fact one could argue that the director's central thematic concern is not so much the physical violence Chopper inflicts as the violence he wreaks on reality. He lies so often, so well and (sadly) so charmingly that he destroys any hope we might have of ever knowing the truth.

This notion is underscored by the film's style. Dominik uses a number of surreal tricks: sped-up and slowed-down footage, monochromatically lit sets, and even a bit of a musical number. What's more he increases the degree of unreality as the story progresses, as though Chopper is polluting the reality of his surroundings through the sheer force of his psychopathic personality. (A really brilliant sound mix reinforces this deterioration as well.)

Dominik's stylistic choices are savvy, but what really makes the movie work is Bana's extraordinary performance as Chopper. Bana, we are told, is known primarily as a comedian: Cast as a black guard, he manages to use his comic tone to emphasize the character's wildly erratic charm. It's a contrast that makes Chopper all the more horrifying.

 
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