Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Eric Bana
Watch online: Netflix UK
“I’m just a normal bloody bloke. Who likes a bit of torture.”
Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read was a potentially fascinating Australian criminal turned best-selling author. Catching the eye of first-time filmmaker Andrew Dominik, he became an endlessly quotable anti-hero, robbing drug-dealers and offing other undesirables – a, if there ever were one.
Dominik’s movie uses Read’s trademark sociopathic wit alongside his version of his real-life exploits. These are delivered via a stunning performance from Eric Bana, who was chosen by Read himself. In fact, he lived with Bana for a few days as preparation, helping him perfect the dead stare, the unnerving grin, the skewed comic timing and the gruff, threatening body language. The dialogue plays almost entirely to Chopper’s sharp, nonchalance. (When asked by a prison guard about a fellow inmate who is bleeding to death, thanks to some Chopper-related stab wounds to the neck, he replies “Keithy’s done himself a mischief” and grins a proud, silver-toothed grin.)
The director’s choice of scenes (the book on which the film is based contains several more grisly, more witty options) tailors towards telling Chopper’s story as much as it can. Here lies Dominik’s problem: Mark Brandon Read is not a film, he’s a person. A big, tattooed, scarred, toothless, earless (he cut them off to ensure a change of cell), clever, tough person. Read’s life has no major plot points. He shoots a guy, he goes to prison, stabs a guy in prison, gets out, shoots at a guy, goes back to prison, and so on. Chopper the film is a portrait of Chopper the man, which in many cases would make it a little jarring, maybe too long and maybe too repetitive.
Where many would miss the mark, however, Dominik manages to hit it right between the eyes. He then cuts off the toes and headbutts the mark’s mother. Ensuring that Chopper the man is the focus of the film is actually a triumph, questioning the validity of his narration in a manner as collected and measured as the man himself isn’t. That gives the audience something to think about, aside from laughing at the unsettling violence and awaiting Chopper’s razor-sharp punchline.
Read’s fame (and infamy-centric writing), Bana’s dead-on performance and Dominik’s ability to turn a portrait into a narrative combine to make a formidable team, dishing out as many discussion points as beatings. The result is an intelligent, charmingly psychotic piece. Bullseye.