The “outback gothic” of Australia’s new wave of cinema in the ’60s and ’70s gave us harrowing, eerie tales of outsiders and lurking dangers, from the gruesome Wake In Fright to the ethereally eerie Picnic At Hanging Rock. In the past 20 years or so, the genre has been updated to a more modern milieu with movies like Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead (1988), Chopper, and Animal Kingdom (2010); instead of dusty vistas, these ultra-violent dramas take place in maximum security jails or in crowded homes, close quarters where the threat of violence is smothering and you can smell the old lager and testosterone. Ghosts… came out 12 years earlier than Chopper, but that collaboration between John Hillcoat and Nick Cave didn’t benefit from having a real Australian legend at the center of its story.
Mark Brandon Read, a.k.a. Chopper, was one of Australia’s most famous criminals, and the sort of unknown quantity who could veer between psychotic and charismatic on a dime. Eric Bana was known as a comedian in his native Australia before beefing up for the role of Chopper; in addition to studying the real Mark Read for speech patterns and mannerisms, Bana was kitted out with fake prison tattoos, gold teeth, and mutilated ears. (The real Chopper had another inmate mutilate his ears in the hopes of being transferred away from H division, to avoid the other inmates he’d aggravated with his violent, aberrant behavior.) For better or for worse, Bana’s career has never been the same since.
Chopper is sort of based on Read’s best-selling autobiographies, but director Andrew Dominik tweaked the narrative into a weird, looping story that begins and ends with Chopper sitting in a jail cell and watching himself being interviewed on TV. There’s not much to the plot itself—there’s some drama with his old pal Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon), who stabbed Chopper in prison and might be gunning for him now that they’re both out, but mostly we’re just basking in the off-kilter glory of this unhinged criminal. Dominik doesn’t expect anyone to enjoy witnessing Chopper’s ultra-violent crimes or his company, nor is the viewer expected to figure out why he is the way he is or excuse him in any way.
“I get a bit bloody schizo or something, you know?” he tells his girlfriend, Tanya, just after dragging her out of a club. “I go out, everyone’s staring at me ears, they’re staring at me tats.” Not much later, he’s breaking into her house and punching her multiple times off-screen; when Tanya’s mom tries to intervene, Chopper head-butts her and screams at Tanya, “Have a look at what you’ve done. Look at what you’ve gone and done. Your mum’s upset!” On the flip side, Chopper is very nearly flirting with the TV reporter interviewing him as he jokes about cutting off people’s toes. The glint in Bana’s eyes perfectly captures that razor’s edge of charming and psycho; he almost physically gets bigger when he’s about to snap into violence.
Dominik’s direction keeps the viewer just as off kilter. The prison scenes were filmed on location at Pentridge Prison H Division, where Chopper spent time in the ’70s. They’re almost like chamber plays, with stark white walls and floors occasionally sullied by puddles of blood. The strangest, most intimate scene is between Chopper and Jimmy, who stabs him several times; they grapple with the shiv in what could be misconstrued as a warm embrace. A little later, Chopper mournfully tells him, “I don’t hate you. You just broke my heart.” The scenes of Chopper out in the world are dripping with color, from the dirty close quarters of a junky’s apartment to girlfriend Tanya’s louche red bedroom, and later a nightclub stuttering with strobe lights.
Even now, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile the handsome star of Munich, Star Trek, and Hanna (those sopping wet long johns!) with the hulking slab of crazy that launched Bana’s dramatic career. Dominik hasn’t exactly abandoned the themes of outlaws and murder with his films The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly. Meanwhile, the gothic outback marches on in the work of other Aussie directors like David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders)
Availability: Chopper is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store.