The Real Slum Shady

Chopper's sunless vision of a Down Under underworld is bleak to no end

Chopper is less a movie than a dare. Up there on the screen are the real-life adventures of Australian career criminal-turned-best-selling author Mark Brandon Read. "Chopper," as he is popularly known, is a lout who earned his apt nickname by hacking his way in and out of ludicrously violent situations, a gleeful bloodletting spree that sets out to inspire guilty chuckles as well as shocked grimaces. The film is as artful an exercise in sensationalism as a state-fair contest to see who can swallow the most jalapeños, or an MTV challenge to spend the entire night in a supposedly haunted prison. Which isn't to say it's artless: As any fifth grader at the lunch table will tell you, there's a talent to the gross-out, and writer-director Andrew Dominik possesses that talent.

Chopper begins with our burly, grinning protagonist glaring across the cellblock at his nemesis, the aging hood Keithy George. Within minutes, George is writhing about on the antiseptic, institutional floor in an ever-growing pool of blood, while his attacker, Read, genially offers the poor yob a smoke. The camera drinks it all in while issuing an implicit challenge to the paying audience. How long are you willing to look? Dominik seems to ask. How close are you willing to look? For his part, Dominik is always willing to hold the shot one second longer than you'd expect or like, the camera peering impertinently in on whatever bodily fluids are spilt.

As befits such a cinematic dare, that early gory moment is hardly the last: Indeed, for the first half-hour of the film, each succeeding bloodbath ups the ante. Before he leaves prison, Read will be shivved eight times by a supposed mate, as the traitor's accomplice pukes in horror. ("Jimmy," Chopper deadpans to his assailant, "if you keep stabbing me, you're gonna kill me.") Then, in order to gain a transfer out of that same cellblock before someone figures out how to really do him in, Read orders another horrified stooge to lop off his ears. Are you still looking? How close?

Read 'em and weep: Eric Bana in Chopper
Read 'em and weep: Eric Bana in Chopper

A thrilling start, to be sure, but as Read finally strides out of prison, we're left wondering why Dominik is so intent on luring us into this particular underworld. That problem of intention is exacerbated by the fact that Dominik himself isn't sure what to make of Read. The lout, as joyously fleshed out by Australian TV comic Eric Bana, is certainly charismatic. Even if he never said a word, Read, a baroquely tattooed lump of flesh and muscle with mangled gold teeth and hideously butchered earlobes, would command attention. Moreover, Read never shuts up, providing a running commentary on his life, intending to make those around him nervous and, perhaps, revealing his own jangled nerves, providing humor both intentional and not.

Bana's Chopper embodies the paradox of a charming sociopath while, in turn, daring onlookers (including the director) to make some sense out of him. He lights up when asked to comment on himself, thrilled by being the focus of attention. "I'm just a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture," he explains chummily to reporters. At the same time, all that attention feeds his paranoia--so much so that he shoots up a nightclub his first evening back on the town. But the film's attempts to summon up pathos are intermittent and unconvincing. Although we occasionally glimpse regret beneath Chopper's violent exploits, such apologetic asides are superficial and unplumbed. With so many questions left unanswered (and some practically unasked), Read becomes, for all Bana's panache, less a mystery than a cipher.

Furthermore, Dominik shows such contempt for the lowlife milieu he cruises that there's no chance of social commentary. Read's crimes seem hard to condemn because the people by whom he's surrounded (and whom he chooses to weed out) are so unpalatable. Not only are they dealers and hustlers and murderers, but, the film implies, they're so tacky, glaring at the camera in loud, unbuttoned shirts and flashing unseemly gold, that they could hardly be much loss to the world. Still, when Read mercilessly batters his girlfriend, a personably skanky hooker who edges as close to our sympathy as Dominik permits any of his creations, it inspires a moral twinge. This isn't funny anymore, we protest--and, as if in agreement, Dominik uncharacteristically allows the thrashing to take place off camera. And then he moves on to the next murderously comic scene.

Chopper, then, slowly devolves into a case of cinematic rubbernecking. The bleached colors Dominik employs are both aptly lurid and cheaply sensationalist. The prison is filtered into suitably washed-out blues and whites. The nightclub Chopper frequents is a retina-grating rainbow of weary neons. Unmoored from any coherent vision that would root this story in the world, Dominik seems like a clever boy turned loose to employ his favorite tricks. When he offers alternate depictions of a crime scene, pitting Chopper's word against that of his enemies, it's a parlor game. There's no reality at stake here--it's one liar's word against another.

So: Is Chopper just a warped insight into a lawless continent of outlaws? Well, actually, the cultural artifact to which the film begs comparison isn't Australian at all--not Crocodile Dundee in L.A., but The Marshall Mathers LP. And yet the differences are instructive. If Eminem uncovers comic pleasure in the violence he artfully toys with, he does so in a self-conscious way that probes the source of our attraction to that violence, and to the pathology of masculinity. While Dominik's treatment of violence offers an absurdist counterpoint to this typically American moralism, it's comparatively low in nutritional value.

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