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'Chopper': Unsettling and Captivating

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2001

   


    'Chopper' Eric Bana as Mark "Chopper" Read. (First Look)
There's a hole at the center of "Chopper," and that's not a flaw of the film. Rather it's a flaw of Mark "Chopper" Read, the real-life subject of this audacious Australian movie about a man whose nickname reportedly comes from an incident in which he removed a man's toes with a bolt cutter.

Why did he do it?

Who the heck knows? Certainly not Chopper, a charming but amoral career criminal now retired to Tasmania whose jailhouse memoirs have become bestsellers in Australia and upon whose violent exploits filmmaker Andrew Dominik (until now known for his music videos) based this by turns lurid, sad, hysterical, riveting and perplexing first feature.

The movie, told in flashback, is bookended with scenes of a beefy, tattooed and silver-toothed Chopper (Eric Bana) sitting in a prison cell, watching himself being interviewed on TV as he cuts up with the guards, laughs at his own jokes and talks back to the screen. Grotesque, affable and hungry for attention, he looks like "Cape Fear's" Max Cady (as played by Robert De Niro, not Robert Mitchum) . . . only scarier and more ingratiating. Suddenly, we're back in 1978, where a slimmer and prettier (though no saner) version of him is seen during an earlier incarceration.

In these scenes, in fact in all the film's scenes, director Dominik exaggerates the film stock's color, so that different environments look coldly blue (Chopper's cell), incandescent orange (his family home) or puke green (the rundown apartment of his junkie pal, played by Simon Lyndon). It's as if the world had been stabbed and bled of color, leaving everything a sort of washed-out monochrome reflecting the emotional – but not the actual – temperature. And it's appropriate, because Chopper is soon gouging another inmate's (David Field) eye out with a shiv, leaving him to wallow in a puddle of his own motor oil-brown blood.

I realize this is not everyone's cup of tea, but it's actually rather beautiful.

Within moments of the attack, Chopper curses himself out, as though he has just stubbed his toe or broken a teacup – something he can't help doing but finds himself doing again and again. Next, he offers his victim a smoke with what almost looks like genuine compassion, then showers him with abuse.

Such volatility keeps the audience (like's Chopper's friends, family members, lovers and victims) off balance, and that disequilibrium makes us work to keep our footing in a way that passive Hollywood pap does not.

At the center of the whole thing is Bana, a popular Aussie stand-up comedian who gives a tour de force performance as someone who quite probably doesn't understand his own motives. Movies about aberrants ("Rain Man's" idiot-savant, "Niagara, Niagara's" Tourette's sufferer) are hard because we can't easily relate to the characters.

Bana's gift – and his triumph – is that he makes us somehow care about this magnetic monster, without ever letting us feel as if we've figured him out.

"Chopper" (Unrated, 94 minutes) – Contains obscenity, graphic violence, drug use and indecent exposure.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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