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The Chopper

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Chopper

Starring: Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon
Director: Andrew Dominik
Rated: NR
RunTime: 94 Minutes
Release Date: April 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Vince Colosimo, Kate Beahan, David Field

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

People serving time in jail live in their own worlds, organizing themselves into status hierarchies just like the folks churning out a living outside. The common mugger, often a semiliterate young person going from victim to victim to feed a drug habit would be fairly low on the totem pole except perhaps among his fellow street criminals. Those who rape children are pretty low on the scale as other prisoners may think of their own sisters, while members of organized crime are on top--doubtless because fellow inmates fear them but also have respect for the businesslike ways they carry out their activities. The subject of Andrew Dominik's compelling drama, Mark Read (aka Chopper), is a killer but in a different way from the hit men who do jobs for the mob. He is not organized, he has few and ultimately no real friends, and yet he has garnered the respect not only of the prison guards but of TV interviewers, detectives, and readers of best-sellers. The film, a character study of one of Australia's most best- known criminals, examines Read from various perspectives, with scripter Dominik placing words in his mouth that make us laugh at the very moment we witness some gruesome, violent acts. Based on Read's autobiography--which sold 250,000 copies in his home country--"Chopper" look like a biopic but in reality is not for two reasons: some of the characters that inhabit the man's world are composites, and some of the braggadocio of Read himself is scarcely to be believed.

Late in the story, we hear Read boasting that he killed nineteen people, slicing off the toes of some of them simply to hear them pop; in the film, we observe this killer murdering only two. Read is a bundle of ironies and contradictions: he is human just like the rest of us, feeling guilty for what he does, and yet he persists in his alarmingly violent behavior. He is witty, a guy with a great sense of humor, yet when he carries a grudge he relentlessly seeks out vengeance. His basic demeanor is an engaging one so that those who have no idea what he has done would consider him a worthy subject for a chat on TV (which indeed he participated in), and yet he can change his mood from delight to fury as quickly as a giggly baby who suddenly wets himself or a wiseass adolescent who is told to leave the room and see the principal.

This Sundance 2001 entry which has already won three major awards from the Australian Film Industry (best actor, best supporting actor and best director) is divided into two segments, the first taking place in 1978 while the latter part follows Read's life eight years later. We see him in the H Division, the maximum security section of Melbourne's Pentridge Prison, watching the interview that he took part in some time earlier on the small screen of his cellhouse TV. Two guards sit with him laughing when he does and generally seeming to bond with this paradoxically charming murderer more than with their fellow screws. Dominik then takes us back to Chopper's earlier days in the brig, where he had been sentenced for kidnapping the judge who was presiding over the trial of his pal Jimmy (Simon Lyndon). Taunted by a fellow inmate (who uses shoe polish to cover a bald spot), Read wreaks terrible vengeance only to be betrayed later by his best friend--who stabs him multiple times, compelling Read to plot vengeance later when both are released from prison. Dominik follows Read from his earlier days as a slim, in-shape fellow to a pudgy, tattooed and scarred wreck who had lost none of his sense of humor. While the subject remains obsessed with vengeance, he has time to spend with his hooker girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beahan), who makes little attempt to hide her affection for a rich drug dealer Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo). Read becomes so obsessed with hatred for Neville and Jimmy that we are amazed he can smile broadly, whether interviewed by a comely and fascinated host (Renee Brack) or chatting with his understanding and forgiving dad, Keith Read (Kenny Graham).

Eric Bana, who is ethnically German-Croatian and is well known as a TV comic in his native Australia, turns in a remarkable performance, easily combining the severity of his character's passion with the easy wit and carefree charm that could--and did--win over a jury which refused to convict him for murder. As evidence of his appeal even to those who are properly horrified by his deeds, simply go to and note the titles of his books which include "How to Shoot Friends and Influence People." My distinguished online colleague from Australia, Luke Buckmaster, has said of this picture, "Hollywood has built a foundation that relies on stuffing films down the viewers' throats...we are told what to think and how to react....'Chopper' cannot take this stance...[it]doesn't treat viewers like consumer purchasing morons." Absolutely true: as with "Natural Born Killer," we are not told what to think of the subject of the picture. "Chopper" is a thinking person's comment on a brutal man with a wry sense of humor, its lensers (Geoffrey Hall and Kevin Haywood), filming the prison scene in what could best be called puke green while writer-director Dominik confronts us with a barrage of contradictory emotions, at one point even having his characters speak in rhymed couplets as though he were staging a comedy by Moliere.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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