July 9, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Chopper (2000)

by Nick Schager


[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Oliver Stone's criminals-and-drugs saga Savages.]

Fascinated by self-mythologizing criminals and the futility of their navel-gazing adoration, Andrew Dominik plumbs the twisted mind of Australia's most notorious convict with Chopper, the reality-fractured tale of tattooed lunatic Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read (Eric Bana). Dominik's film is based on a number of Reads' own books, and assumes their author's wacko view of himself and the world around him, plunging into its protagonist's headspace over the course of two distinct periods—1978, when he was incarcerated in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison; and 1986, when he was back on the streets—with a enveloping intensity. Bookended by the sight of Chopper watching himself in an exclusive TV news interview from his cell alongside two guards, a chat punctuated by Chopper gleefully calling himself "a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture," it's a jet-black comedy of volatile ferocity. Admitting to right-hand man Jimmy (Simon Lyndon) "I don't hate anybody" shortly before he viciously stabs a rival to death, then sincerely asking his victim, "You alright, Keith?", and then cheekily quipping to the guards who tend to this wounded man, "Keithy seems to have done himself a mischief!", Chopper proves a terrifyingly schizophrenic specimen, a cross between a pit bull and The Joker.

Lurching between compassion, malice and paranoia, Chopper commits this murder with a nonchalance that rightly unnerves fellow inmates, leading Jimmy to gash the hand that feeds him by, out of the blue, stabbing Chopper in the gut with a shiv. "What's got into you," asks a confused Chopper after the first two blows, and after a few more, "If you keep stabbing me, you're gonna kill me" The bemused expression on Chopper's face amidst this brutal betrayal is horrifying, and amplified when Chopper removes his shirt to examine his wounded gut with a casual curiosity that—along with the gushing bloodletting—compels Jimmy's wimpy partner Blue (Dan Wyllie) to begin vomiting while apologizing to Chopper. Dominik shoots this scene with unsettling calm, and his consistent use of close-ups suggest not only the claustrophobia of Chopper's literal circumstances, but also the way in which he's a victim of his own warped fears, anxieties and overly inflated ideas about himself—the latter most clearly felt in his repeated, and laughably imaginary, notion that his murderousness is in fact some sort of noble vigilantism aimed at ridding the streets of drug dealers.


Chopper's life quickly turns into a carnival, with Jimmy crazily prosecuting Chopper in court as the aggressor in their melee, and Chopper—in order to receive a prison transfer so he can avoid being slain by the many inmates who now find him an unwelcome presence—willingly having his ears sliced off, an act that includes him berating the man asked to perform the deed for not working quickly and efficiently enough. Cut to the mid-'80s and, though featuring a heavier, more inked-up body, Chopper is the same delusional narcissist as before, opening fire in a nightclub where the strobe lights reflect his explosiveness, and shooting an acquaintance (Vince Colosimo) simply because the guy won't lend Chopper cash. That Chopper drives this latest victim to the hospital for treatment, and then subsequently refutes claims that he did so to everyone he meets, is—like his bragging about, and then also denying, his working relationship as an informer for the cops—part and parcel of his own screwy headspace. Concocting and promoting multiple, often conflicting, versions of himself to best suit his present needs, Chopper quickly loses himself down the mental rabbit hole, and so too does Dominik's film, culminating with a sing-songy sequence about Chopper executing a man in a nightclub parking lot (which the cops, in hilarious "Boy Who Cried Wolf" fashion, won't pin on Chopper despite his confessing and handing over the shotgun used) that incorporates multiple, clashing accounts of what took place.


As with his follow-up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik's film immerses itself in criminal delusions of grandeur while always remaining slightly detached from them, the better to eventually lay out a portrait of the useless destruction that comes from such self-aggrandizement. Dominik's story ends with the titular psycho alone in a cell, forced to at least momentarily face the no-glory consequences of his actions, but of course by its very existence, Chopper proves that notoriety does sell, especially with a headlining turn as volcanic and sly as the one delivered here by Bana. Previously best known as a stand-up comedian, the actor inhabits Chopper's pudgy frame with wild, careening charisma, suggesting danger with a slight shift in weight or via eyes that dart and glare with unpredictable menace. Showy only insofar as it captures the character's inflated ego, Bana's performance vacillates so naturally between comedy and cruelty, between tranquility and persecution-complex suspicion, that it transforms Chopper into an awe-inspiringly grotesque caricature of rage and madness—one who, to his ultimate downfall, truly embraced the idea, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn."

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Posted by ahillis at July 9, 2012 8:06 AM