“Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.”
Chopper is an absolute wonder. It’s simultaneously hilarious, psychotic, disorientating, factually unreliable and sickeningly violent. It’s been almost fifteen years since filmmaker Andrew Dominik burst onto the international film scene with one of the greatest Australian films of all time. It’s an all too frequent occurrence to see the phrase ‘instant classic’ bandied about; Chopper was appropriately adorned with that title.
Self mutilation, murder, webs of lies and infamy; Chopper follows the emergence of Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read as one of Australia’s most notorious criminals.
Melbourne stand-up Eric Bana, went from some notoriety on television sketch comedy Full Frontal before being cast to play one of Australia’s most infamous crooks. From the opening moments of Chopper, he not only immerses you into the man, but his portrayal becomes the way that world then imagines the man from that moment onwards. Not since Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas has character been so engaging and unpredictable. It’s disorientating watching him, Dominik dials you into his rhythm, so that you’re hanging on every beat, every conflicted thought, every tick as he’s deciding what next extreme reaction will come next. Physical transformation and vocal portrayal aside there’s humanity, humour and a frightening indifference portrayed in the beats of every scene. Staggeringly great. Simon Lyndon, David Field, Dan Wyllie, Bill Young, Vince Colosimo, Kenny Graham and Kate Beahan provide a chorus of brilliant supporting performances that on further reinforce the level of mental faculty that our protagonist is functioning with.
You almost forget that the scope of the film, despite occurring over an expanse of Mark Brandon Read’s life, is kept to several defining snapshots in time, that seem to have the most rigid factual verification, to then contrast it with Chopper’s account of events. Dominik from minute one shows extraordinary dexterity of filmmaking techniques. The aesthetic of the prison is lit and shaded to appear like the sallow blue grey of a morgue. The film cycles back in slow motion, to display meticulous detail of Chopper’s alibi in the wake of shanking David Field’s Keithy George to death. The detail of Bana’s perplexed face as Simon Lyndon’s Jimmy Loughnan plays with a bull-ant makes me marvel and chuckle thinking about it. The films speeds up to display the effects of Neville Bartos’ (Vince Colosimo) speed on Chopper and Neville’s lackeys; and even when Serge Liistro’s Sammy the Turk meets his end Dominik goes back and plays a musical ‘beat poem’ accounting for reason why the assassination attempt failed.
There are so many moments where you’re actually cackling at the petty squabbling and how Chopper sees such huge lapses (shooting up a night club for example) as minor indiscretions. As the waves of cackling begin to subside Dominik will force you to bare witness to something so heinous that the laughter wave mutates into that panicked, awkward, ‘coping mechanism’ laughter that just cannot believe how we’ve gotten to this point. Dominik’s unflinching style continuously takes you in and out of these kinds of moments.
With Chopper Dominik immediately emerged as one of Australia’s finest cinematic storytellers and leading man Bana was gifted the role of a lifetime. You would never have been able to imagine that being inside the head of a schizophrenic, psychopathic, compulsive liar could be so damned entertaining.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik (based on the books by Mark Brandon Read)
Starring: Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, David Field, Dan Wyllie, Bill Young, Vince Colosimo, Kenny Graham, Kate Beahan, Serge Liistro, Pam Western, Gary Waddell, Brian Mannix, Skye Wansey