For a film about a violent australian who boasted in his memoirs of murdering at least 19 people, Chopper starts surprisingly poetically. To the strains of Frankie Laine singing Cole Porter's Don't Fence Me In, time-lapse clouds sail over a blue-tinted Pentridge prison in Melbourne, where, in the late 1970s, Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read was jailed for trying to kidnap a County Court judge. Clearly, this is a film that asks us to think differently about criminals and the movies that confine them.
On and off the screen, Chopper has been difficult to restrain. In 1998, and just released from jail, Read made Australians squirm in their living rooms when he appeared drunk and barely orderly on a TV chat show. Now movie audiences can experience the same sense of unease as he is presented, once again, for our enjoyment: here in close-up is Read having his ears chopped off to get a prison transfer; here is a newly freed Read visiting his mate's house, entertaining his daughter, then holding a gun to his friend's face; here is a murderous, police-protected Read high on amphetamines, for which writer-director Andrew Dominik literally cranks up the speed of the film.
Chopper seldom pauses for thought, and what a contradictory creature he is. He maims a fellow inmate, then tosses him a cigarette, which floats in a pool of blood. "Your kindness will be the death of you," Chopper's father tells Read on his release, with welcome home mark strung up in the living room. Read craves attention, yet becomes a gibbering mess of paranoia in public. "They're staring at my ears, staring at my tatts," he tells his girlfriend (Kate Beahan) at a nightclub. Later, he courts her with a right hook before headbutting her mother.
The squalls of violence can be difficult to look at. And in a film loaded with sharp objects (knives, guns, needles), sharpest of all is Eric Bana's performance in the lead role. It's not just the metal-toothed leer and tattooed gut that compel and repel. It's the way Bana draws you in-with his soft, folksy soliloquies and his upward-inflected "right?"-and then snaps. Trained as a comic, Bana has exquisite timing. But his dark eyes sparkle with the inscrutability of a psychopath.
Which is perhaps the main problem with Chopper. Is it enough simply to present a monster, even one with such panache? In the fictional Silence of the Lambs, we saw the charismatic Hannibal Lecter through the moral filter of Clarice Starling; in Taxi Driver we got the sociopath, but Martin Scorsese also provided the sociology to explain him. With Chopper we get ... Chopper, straight up, and in your face. We also get the message that crime ultimately pays. Many will find that notion unpalatable, but others will swallow it with relish.