Chopper (2000)

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik

“Keithy’s done himself a mischief!”

The Disc

Looks like I bought this from a Blockbuster in the early noughties – there’s a sticker on it marked up as September 11, 2001, but I suspect that’s the release date rather than the date I bought it.

The disc itself has animated menus(!), deleted scenes, a pair of commentaries – one with writer/director Andrew Dominik and another with the real-life Chopper Read himself – as well as a series of short clips with star Eric Bana and Dominik getting to know Read at his farm two years prior to the film being released. These are fascinating, but also pretty terrifying to know just how scary this guy was in real life.

Why Did I Get This?

I was in my first year of uni when Chopper came out, and even though there was a wonderful independent cinema in the city, it got its first screening at the local Walkabout bar. Presumably because it’s an Australian film, but whatever – I got a couple of free tickets and went with my housemate to see it over a few points of weak lager.

Elements of it have stuck with me for the twenty-odd years since seeing it. Particularly, saying someone’s “done themselves a mischief”, whenever they take a knock (though thankfully never in the same circumstances as the characters in the film!).

Prior to this, my only experience of Australian independent film was Mad Max, and there are arguably links between the two – specifically blistering performances from young leading men and sudden bursts of shocking violence – and remember Bana’s performance in particular being particularly strong.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will discuss the film in levels of detail which could be considered spoilers, so if you’re looking to avoid that, scroll down to the next heading.

Mark Brandon Read is a career criminal known as Chopper to his friends, his enemies and police. It’s a reputation and nickname he cultivates and relishes as he imagines himself to be the top dog of the criminal underworld in Victoria, Australia. It’s a reputation well-earned, as a notorious streetfighter, gang leader, kidnapper, torturer and robber of drug dealers, who spent most of twenties and thirties in and out of high security prisons (where he also led gang wars and multiple acts of violence throughout his sentences).

The film opens with the following caption…

“This film is a dramatisation in which narrative liberties have been taken. It is not a biography.”

Now, a caption like this usually means there are several people still alive who will be unhappy with their portrayal in the film, or the real-life narrator is so unreliable that the filmmakers want to distance themselves from risk of legal retribution.

On this occasion, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine the filmmakers were worried about Chopper’s satisfaction with how he comes across in the film, and potential risk of retribution – legal or otherwise – at his hands.

The film covers almost 20 years of Read’s life, with a framing device set in prison in 1991 as he watches himself being interviewed on television while laughing and joking about his appearance and the news reporter who interviewed him. Only when we return to this scene at the end is it clear that the two men watching alongside him are prison guards, who leave him to stare thoughtfully at his cell wall until the credits roll.

From there, we go back to 1978, where a fresh-faced Read has already built himself a reputation in Pentridge Prison as someone who “bashes people for no reason” other than to make a name for himself. Verbal sparring in the exercise yard with older lag Keithy George (“Beethoven had his critics too, Keith, let’s see if you can name three of them.”), turns quickly to a brutal and lethal attack which leaves the older man dying in a pool of blood on the ground and a $10,000 bounty on Chopper’s head.

This attack, while horrific and shocking, also gives us our first glimpse at Read’s twisted sense of humanity – after stabbing Keithy George in the head and neck in a frenzy, he quickly retreats to the other side of the yard, cursing himself and almost in tears. Then, he offers apologies and a cigarette to the dying man, before getting angry again that his forgiveness isn’t forthcoming.

On the commentary, Read himself says “Just because you’re gonna kill a bloke, there’s no reason for discourtesy”, and it’s an almost childlike performance from Bana – doing something ‘naughty’, getting caught and apologising, before getting cross again when he’s not immediately forgiven – and completely at odds with the brutality of the attack from just seconds earlier.

It’s a really smart move, as it gives the character a depth when he’s at risk of being a one-dimensional villain – when you’re hanging the film on a character as unpleasant as Read undoubtedly was, you need to highlight whatever humanity and depth there is.

Bana made his name in Australia as a comedian, and the same charm that helped him win over audiences in comedy clubs is evident throughout his performance in Chopper. Moments after the brutal murder that starts the film, he laments to his friends “I think I put my shoulder out” – some actors would have played for the laugh, but in Bana’s performance it’s a simple statement of concern that just happens to be funny and brilliantly timed.

Admittedly, the direction and editing played a factor in this, but there’s a lightness of touch in Bana’s performance that sparkles whenever he allows it as a most welcome alternative to the darkness he also brings to the role. Interestingly, on one of the commentaries, Read himself says he personally approved of Bana’s casting as he was a comedian rather than a movie star, meaning he could disappear more fully into the character without bringing his own reputation with him.

The violence continues as Read’s friend Jimmy attempts to cash in on the bounty by stabbing Chopper multiple times in his cell. Again, it pretty much comes out of nowhere – one minute they’re discussing Chopper’s plan to take an ice pick to the spine of every inmate in the prison, and the next, Chopper’s got more than half a dozen puncture wounds in his chest and abdomen and is bleeding freely through his tattoos.

Rather than reacting with fury, as you might expect, Chopper is confused at first (“It’s a bit early in the morning for kung fu, isn’t it Jim?”), then almost impressed with his friend’s initiative (“I’ll give you top marks for treachery, mate.”). When he finally takes umbrage at being stabbed, Bana switches again from ‘Mark’ to ‘Chopper’. He calmly puts his cigarette in his pocket, tells Jimmy that if he carries on stabbing him, he’ll die, then grabs him by the neck and holds him up against the wall until he drops the knife, before collapsing slowly and is offered a cigarette by Jimmy who gently holds him until the prison guards arrive.

It’s another curious example of the seemingly contradictory actions of the prisoners – from calm chat to sudden violence and back to tender friendship within a few frenzied minutes, and again helps ensure the characters are more fully rounded than just ‘a bad guy’.

Following both the Keithy George attack and the attempt on his own life, we get examples of Chopper’s keenness to ‘print the myth’ when it comes to his own life, as he offers disputed and alternative versions of events to police and prison guards. His autobiographies are written in a friendly, jokey style, and this comes across as he tries to play games with the authorities when recounting these violent attacks – while officers listen while remaining sceptical and stoney-faced, Chopper is trundling out the latest tale which paints him as either innocent bystander, lucky underdog or police-sanctioned vigilante.

I haven’t seen Rashomon yet (it’s on the Late Reviewer list though, so watch this space), but I know enough about it from its reputation, one of the greatest jokes in the history of The Simpsons and Ghost Dog to know it involves different interpretation of incidents from alternating points of view. In Chopper’s case, the filmmakers offer up what we take to be truth, before the character offers up a yarn to the cops – Read’s an unreliable narrator, to the point where he starts to believe his own tales, and that feels like something that came directly from his writing.

One of the poster quotes for Chopper calls it “Reservoir Dogs and then some”, and to be honest, that annoys me. Tarantino’s film was a chock-full of retro needle drops, dialogue that took regular pop-culture conversations to the Nth degree, and merged/homaged/stole countless ideas to make a film which heralded the arrival of a major new director.

Chopper doesn’t have the soundtrack (though it does include a version of Don’t Fence Me In playing over shots of the prison Read spent the best part of a decade inside), and while the dialogue is fun in places, it doesn’t feel overworked or written with the aim to stick in your mind – it’s occasionally funny, but often functional and no-nonsense, as you might expect from a low-key thug and his circle.

What it does have in common with Reservoir Dogs though, is a scene of an ear being cut off. Two ears, actually, both belonging to Chopper, and done so with his express permission, in a successful attempt to be moved out of the prison wing where there’s a price on his head.

The scene is a lot more graphic than Tarantino’s, and played in equal parts for gross-out and laughs, but I suspect the poster quote might just have been tweaked out of context. I wonder how many people picked up Chopper expecting a killer soundtrack and stylish thugs discussing Madonna’s bedroom habits, only to be presented with the bloody misadventures of a tattooed, moustachioed, paranoid psychopath.

Chopper is released from prison in 1986, sans ears, and visits his sex worker girlfriend, takes drugs (something the real Read said he was never really into, but had dabbled with just for the experience), and returns home to his father, who greets him disdain, a beer and “cheers, big ears!”

On one of his first visits to his local club – Bojangles – he’s confronted by a guy at the bar he doesn’t recognise. Tension simmers for a few moments, and it looks as if violence will erupt, before Chopper realises it’s Neville Bartos – a drug dealer he shot in the leg several years earlier, who benefited from compensation after the attack and is doing ‘pretty bloody alright for himself’, with his tracksuit, chestful of gold chains and guard dogs fed on cocaine.

Again, Bana shows the worry on Read’s face to the point where we’re fully expecting explosive violence, then suddenly deflates it when he recognises the guy. It’s superbly done – Dominik lets the scene run, the uncertainty build, before pulling the rug from under us… for a few minutes anyway.

Because after accepting a couple of beers from Bartos, Chopper becomes convinced that (a) Bartos still holds a grudge against him, and (b) Bartos has also been seeing his girlfriend Tanya while he’s been in prison. He’s also sure everyone’s looking at his ears, but that’s played a little more for laughs than terror.

Inevitably, and following another confrontation with Bartos in which he’s assured the tracksuit-wearing dealer doesn’t hold a grudge, Tanya takes the brunt of Chopper’s paranoid insecurity. Following an unpleasant argument in the car outside her house, they argue and she goes inside. Chopper tries to apologise and charm his way in, then when that fails, kicks the door in and physically assaults Tanya.

The assault against Tanya largely takes place in a bathroom offscreen, making it even more harrowing, as you can hear the blows land as he shouts curses at her and she sobs, and after the initial intrusion, as he’s holding her daughter’s hair, Tanya’s mum tries to intervene and is headbutted by Read.

It’s an appalling, unforgiveable scene of domestic violence. It feels ugly and real, and is rounded off by Read storming out past both women on the ground, shouting “Now look what you’ve gone and done! Your mum’s upset.” It’s not treated lightly, and despite Chopper’s final line reading like and delivered almost as a punchline, it’s not played for laughs, but another disturbing violent act.

“Now look what you’ve gone and done. Your mum’s upset.”

In a former life, I spent a lot of time reporting from court, and saw my fair share of domestic violence cases which often featured similar lines, where the offender had told the victim whatever happened to them had been their own fault. Again, it feels ugly, it feels real, and it’s not an easy scene to watch.

Naturally, Chopper’s next move is to head to see Bartos and apologise for his actions in the club. Of course, this turns into a mix of armed robbery and protection racketeering as he threatens to shoot Bartos again if he doesn’t give him money.

Despite Bartos’ protestations that there’s no money in the house, Chopper gives him to the count of 20 to produce some cash before shooting him in the abdomen – something he boasts about in interviews in the extras, but says the cash usually appeared before he had to actually shoot anyone.

Tonally, this is played with tension and unease but also an air of comedy – there’s something absurd about the shouted denials and counting aloud, until the gun is fired, and Chopper’s back in apologetic mode, but also telling Bartos it’s not much of a bullet wound so he should stop whining.

The whole scene is recounted to police officers in a bar, where they tell Chopper they’ve heard he drove Bartos to hospital after the shooting. Read denies this, of course, but we see exactly that, in another playful little narration trick.

As officers tell Chopper there’s a price on his head once more, he’s too busy exposing his genitals to a woman across the bar (I’m assuming it’s a prosthetic, but if not… well, congratulations, Mr Bana). It’s yet another example of Chopper not taking serious issues seriously, but the scene is followed by a visit to the flat of Jimmy – his former friend from prison who stabbed him earlier in the film – where it’s clear he’s convinced not only that the threat is real, but that Jimmy is planning to cash in his former friend’s head.

Following the classic ‘hand over your weapons’ gag at the door to the flat (as Chopper hands over about half a dozen firearms of varying, comical sizes to Jimmy’s pregnant girlfriend), there are more uneasy scenes as Read introduces himself to their young daughter as “Uncle Chop-Chop”, and acts the avuncular buddy before telling Jimmy – who is now addicted to heroin and living in poverty – that his family could be used against him.

It’s a talky and intimidating scene, made more oppressive by Dominik’s choice to cut between static wide shots of the pair seated across the small room from each other, and slow, sweeping dollies into close-ups of each actor. As well as building tension, it emphasises the dingy, cramped space, before Chopper leaps up and puts a gun to Jimmy’s head as the pair scream at each other.

Chopper leaves, satisfied that he’s made his point – he knows someone’s out to get him, and would happily put a bullet in his old friend’s head if it meant saving his own life. Jimmy gets straight on the phone to tell someone that Chopper’s headed to Bojangles, and we move into one of the strangest sections of the film.

Sammy The Turk is a character with zero screen time ahead of this visit to the club, and when he bumps into Chopper in Bojangles, appears to be just another low-level criminal who recognises him on the outside. He buys him a couple of drinks, then invites him to the car park where he claims to have a couple of guns to sell.

At least, that’s what Chopper tells us. We see them meet, we see them walking into the car park, but it’s unclear who brought who outside. We see Chopper shoot Sammy in the head, then watch as Sammy staggers a few feet before collapsing to the ground, and there’s a brilliant time-lapse shot over his fallen body as it’s discovered, then a crime scene is built around it, while Chopper is telling his version of events to police.

The tale is delivered to silence and disbelief from police in the bar, who inform Chopper they’ve already arrested someone else for the murder and tell him…

“Mate, you’re a bullshit artist. Simple.”

Chopper is furious that his story isn’t taken seriously, then we’re treated to a strange version of Auld Lang Syne with lyrics describing what happened from Chopper’s point of view, including the suggestion that Jimmy and his girlfriend were at the other end of the car park waiting to assassinate him.

It’s a playful touch, again using an unreliable narration to question how much of Chopper’s story is self aggrandisement, and how much is a flat out lie. Is he a bullshit artist? Maybe. Is he a dangerous criminal? Certainly. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but when he starts believing his own hype, including the story that he’s been given carte blanche by police to execute his own form of justice on drug dealers to save them a job, that’s when things start going south.

Things move fast from here, with Chopper going to court for the murder of Sammy the Turk with Jimmy’s girlfriend Mandy as Crown Witness. He beats the murder charge, but is sentenced to five years for malicious wounding of Neville Bartos, which he accepts with surprising grace.

Then we’re back at the beginning – Chopper watching his appearance on a TV documentary with two guards, who then apologetically offer him cigarettes and lock him in the cell as the show ends, and he’s left staring at the wall, contemplating his life.

We’re almost left feeling sorry for him, as he cuts pathetic, tragic figure – completely alone, having alienated, shot or abused everyone in his life. That’s not the story he’d tell, of course, but that’s certainly how it looks.

Thoughts On The Film

As a film, I’d compare it to something like and 2008’s Bronson (celebrating the life of a dangerous man who’s spent much of his life behind bars in a playful and theatrical way), and 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (celebrating the life of an arsehole).

This is a terrifying performance from Bana, he’s electrifying and feels like he could explode into violence at any second. When he does, the violence happens, it’s sudden, brutal and feels real in a way some of the storytelling in the film doesn’t – the darkness in his eyes as he enters the yard for the attack on Keithy George suggest a murderous intent that is genuinely terrifying. Similarly, watching his face and eyes as he weighs up the prison bounty on his head while concocting a brutal plan to avoid it, Bana has the intensity of a young Robert De Niro.

While I found the unreliability of of Chopper’s writing and his tendency to ‘print the legend’ frustrating when reading his autobiography, it really lends itself well to film, particularly one with the playful elements Dominik has introduced.

Watching Dominik and Bana spend time with the real-life Chopper on his farm in the extras is great fun, and shows just how closely to the character Bana was – capturing his mannerisms and speaking patterns well.

Verdict

A powerful big screen leading man debut from Bana and an incredible first feature from Dominik, well worth 90 minutes of your life.

This is a strong recommend from me.

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