Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Chopper
dir/scr Andrew Dominik (based on books by Mark Brandon Read)
cin Geoffrey Hall, Kevin Hayward
stars Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, Vince Colosimo, Kate Beahan
Chopper is n comic, Aussie answer to Raging Bull – an artily stylised but unflinchingly bloody movie based on a violent celebrity autobiography. There’s a lot of De Niro in Eric Bana’s commanding performance as Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read, not least his physical transformation from fighting-fit youth to flabby, chunky middle age. And whenever Chopper is roused to anger or violence – which is often – many of Bana’s mannerisms directly recall De Niro, though in more sensitive moments his eyes and wheedling voice have softer qualities that are entirely Bana’s own.
It’s easy to overlook the essential flimsiness of the movie’s plot, thanks to Bana’s tour-de-force and Dominik’s energetic direction, making copious use of colour filters, bleached images and speeded-up sequences when characters take drugs – an overused gimmick in cinema these days – as
we follow Chopper’s violent progress from prison to the street and back again, but surprisingly little actually happens, just one bloody feud inside and one outside. Perhaps this is Dominik’s intent – in one key scene a cop dismisses Read as a ‘bullshit artist’, raising the intriguing possibility that most of his “exploits” are fictions dreamed up by an articulate attention-seeker. But this promising angle isn’t developed and, by the end, most of the evidence we’re given suggests Chopper really is the volatile psycho his carefully maintained image suggests.
Based on a series of books by Read, Chopper feels like a drastically condensed version of a much longer story. We only find out very late on, for example, that Chopper’s nickname derives not from his (unexplained) metal front teeth, but his supposed habit of cutting off other criminals’ toes – though this, again, could well be another Read fantasy. As with Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, it’s hard to know how to take Chopper – and therefore Chopper – because he isn’t just the most articulate, intelligent and charismatic figure in his movie, he’s the only character who has any of those traits. It’s a testament to the skills of Kate Beahan that she manages to make such an impact in the thankless role of Chopper’s junkie prostitute girlfriend.
Scene by scene, this is an exciting, original picture, with some terrific set pieces – especially one almost unwatchably bloody scene where Chopper, desperate for a transfer out of his cell block, gets a fellow inmate to mutilate his ears. But taken as a whole it falls short of the last Aussie-psycho movie to gain an international release, Rowan Woods’ 1997 debut The Boys. Like Chopper, The Boys revolved around a phenomenal central performance – David Wenham as Brett Sprague. But Rowan Woods surrounded his anti-hero with a vivid set of supporting characters in a claustrophobic environment and a coherent plot, resulting in a downbeat, mature film of real psychological depth and intensity, one which challenged as least as much as it entertained. Chopper
by Neil Young