(Andrew Dominik, 2000)
“Apparently he feels no pain.” Mick Harvey, screen composer for the film Chopper, enlightens me about the film’s main character. There’s no doubt that’s the film’s punch line underneath the violence. After two years of intensive research, Chopper came to a cinema near us. Long awaited, based on biographical stories written my Mark Chopper Read, Australia’s most wanted criminal, about his prison encounters, it is one of the best Australian films of the underworld, criminal genre. Despite the concerns expressed by the Victorian Police about the film glorifying the main character, their minds can rest in peace because Chopper comes across as a big mean criminal with an affinity to torture. They should instead worry about the viewers getting a closer insight into their inadequate jail systems. Nevertheless, Chopper is witty, has a heart when he wants it, and he succeeds at manipulating police and helping them rid the town of the sordid underworld. He bears a very close resemblance to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver yet not as serious and morose.
The script is kept together by Chopper’s witty lines where humour oozes out at every opportunity. If his looks don’t inspire laughs his tongue sure does. Eric Bana known for his past as a comedian fully throws himself into the character that even bedazzled Chopper’s real dad. It was wonderful to see Bana push his acting abilities to such perfection underneath his uncanny resemblance to Reed. My affection for Chopper was blurred between Bana’s performance and the swiftness of the script. There were plentiful moments when I had to wipe my tears away or hold my bladder from too much laughter. Throughout the whole film I couldn’t help but think it was really a comedy despite the harsh realities of Melbourne’s criminal and sleazy world. Pulp Fiction comes to St. Kilda where blowing someone’s brains out looks rather more amusing than shocking. Despite all the ghastly and bloody moments in the film, when Chopper cuts his ears off or stabs his hard-core rival enough times that he ‘bleeds’ sufficient shoe polish to make it look like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the film comes across as a parody of the criminal world. Bojangles, the Mecca for all the crims and drug freaks, is the venue to make any family or business man cringe with fear and disgust. Its tackiness as a locale where all low-life and police meet to wash their dirty laundry or shoot each other, brought pity upon itself.
“The average Australian doesn’t give a shit about Chopper Read.” So true, to an extent, because Chopper’s world is so far removed from our ordinary lives. He only settled scores with the ones who betrayed him or wanted him dead. In the film there are layers upon layers of whimsical moments where humour overrides the atrocities of murder where one cannot be but bemused at the fact that people’s eyeballs perform somersaults or gush out avalanches of blood upon the path of the Bojangles’ carpark. “Chopper you don’t shoot your mates” begs one of them for his mercy after Chopper in cold blood shoots one of the ethnic Mafia dealers. What a paradoxical comment inside a world where there is no trust and best friends reciprocate contracts upon each other.
“What are you doing? What’s got into you?” Chopper’s toughness shines out while he receives multiple stabs from his best friend in prison early on in the film. His lifestyle and his drug intake can be blamed for his outlandish criminal outburst. His head filled with a psychotic speed frenzy turns into paranoia and ultimately leads him to shoot the Turk who initially set him up. Pity and concern fill Chopper’s grip with reality while the Turk’s face resemblances a sifter. Chopper’s moments of superficial generosity make this film a delight yet make you aware of his affinity to torture and revenge. The director’s intensive research of the character and his mood swings are evident right here where he doesn’t just dismiss Chopper as the ultimate psycho but broadens our minds for the reasons for his torturous behaviour. Andrew Dominik has done his homework in presenting an alternative reality of Chopper’s personality to what the media and the police have built him up to be. Condemn his actions or not, we the audience are left on our own to make up our minds about the intriguing hero on the screen. Dominik presents many of Chopper’s sides on plentiful platters and we are meant to savour them the way we see fit. At last a more deep insight into the mind of a criminal rather than what other movies of the same genres have to offer. Dominik succeeds in showing us that Chopper is more than just a tough bully or a loser. Almost articulate and full of confidence we see Chopper emerge as a personality on a superficial Current Affair show while flirting with the attractive lady behind the mike, (who was sent on purpose to bring out the animalistic side of him so we can all hate him). Boasting, and showing the world his doppelgänger, we laugh when he reinvents himself as a writer. “My novels are the best selling books in Australia and I can’t even spell.” That would have sent shivers down any academic’s spine however it cannot be further from the truth. Why are we so seduced by his stories?
The film asks us to investigate our own fascination with the underworld and horror tales yet telling us the best literature is written from experience and not by studying for a PhD in the subject. Chopper’s TV appearance earns him respect amongst the prison’s police force who feel guilty about locking him in the cell. It is evident here that mutual respect between guards and prisoners can be achieved after all and that prison rehabilitates individuals if they are given chances beyond their status as victims to prey upon.
Amongst all the comedy there is a sad reality in Chopper. Corruption, distrust and the dirty dealings amongst criminals underline the reality of the underworld. The cutting-edge truth of prison life surrounding all the corruption and dangerous conditions for the inmates, is heart wrenching. One cannot but feel that the prison system breeds criminals instead of rehabilitating them. Police seem to be unable to protect the inmates from each other while the criminals from the outside seem to run those institutions. Greed and bribery embrace each other inside the prison environments while criminals on the outside who benefit from pay outs live a sweet, uncomplicated life while their status lifted high enough to live in respectable suburbs. A dealer with money is welcomed anywhere despite the means of how the money is earned. For the lesser cunning criminals, life on the outside is back to the commission flats amongst filth and drugs. It is nothing sadder to see the family life of Chopper’s ex prison buddy, a pregnant wife stoned on heroine patting a gun while her child wonders about Chopper’s ears.
Fear brought on by the expectations of revenge is the most common emotion explored in the film. All the money or security in the world cannot prevent the criminals from feeling such emotion once they are out. However, not Chopper, whose jacket is armed with guns and his head with speed, and who voyages throughout the night from one pub to the other threatening and looking cautiously over his shoulder. We see no traces of worried emotions spelled on his tough face even in the presence of undercover police. Instead he performs his confidence by flashing his organ at the rest of the world. Such a private action displayed on film can only come from extensive research of the character, which Dominik proves all throughout the film. I believe the director sympathises with Chopper and his mission to present him in a multi-layered fashion works well. When he could have gone to the other extreme to show the dark side of Chopper in a serious, unforgiving way, (like any other mainstream, righteous director would) he chooses to divulge the uncommon sides to Chopper and the criminal world.
However, the chronology of the film, in which events and dates are scattered all over the screen, is a little misleading yet it somehow doesn’t distract the viewer since it seemed to be superfluous to our understanding of the events. It was the script and the actions which structured the film to flow from giggle to giggle and from emotion to emotion. The original musical score, subtle as an invisible curtain inside a room, drew our souls in and enlarged our attention span as we tasted the blood and the violence on the screen. Hard cord Aussie rock classics, such as the number by Rose Tattoo gave it the Australian authenticity. The supporting cast did great justice as the paranoid, sleazy underworld figures. The only one always blinking and searching for violence was Chopper and my sympathies lay for his girlfriend when she bore the angry moods of his fists. Family ties growing stronger between Chopper and his dad brought him closer to us, it brought him closer to being human. It was reassuring to see this side of mateship amongst all the sadistic violence with which he intimidates everyone. Experimenting with some of the visuals intensified the scenes or accentuated the humour of the situations, in particular, during the drug-taking scenes where their state of mind is visualised by increasing the speed of the film.
Chopper is an amalgam of many issues ignored for so long in other Australian films. It is a great portrayal of a world many of us read about only in books or see on Current Affair in a very distorted manner. Most of us are aware of the corruption and power hierarchy which takes place behind bars but its reality, as presented in Chopper, brought ushered in an increased awareness during times when prisons are run for profits. Whether we like it or not prisons once again have shown that they don’t work. If their aims are to rehabilitate prisoners, the system must be changed in order to put a stop to the violence and fear which exists on the inside as well as on the outside. Chopper and the others went back to the crime spree after prison because they couldn’t do anything else. There must be a life for prisoners beyond their release and it is up to the societies to put prejudices aside and help these people fit in more than ever. Sadistic characters like Chopper exist in all walks of life and they manifest themselves in various ways; however they are part, or perhaps victims, of society and locking them up only hardens and angers their souls and we must be prepared to confront their needs.