Loved, loathed and the subject of more dinner party chatter and water cooler talk than a barrel full of Bridget Joneses, Chopper is almost certainly the most controversial movie of the year. This award-winning Australian film has already been acclaimed far and wide as a brilliantly kinky study of violence at its most outrageously brutal and senseless (no less an authority than crime writer Elmore Leonard even sang its praises on the New York Times Op Ed page). Equal numbers have reviled Chopper as a gratuitous, amoral and barely coherent exploitation of the very thing it's supposed to be exposing.
At the risk of stirring up the pot even more, there's a distinct possibility that the movie is both.
Much like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, a film that's impossible to avoid mentioning in this context, Chopper makes no bones about the fact that it's a freak show. Like NBK (or A Clockwork Orange or Badlands or Man Bites Dog or any number of other modern films about violence) Chopper doesn't attempt to preach or pass judgment: It simply pushes buttons by allowing us to spend some quality time with a publicity-hungry, self-mythologizing criminal. And like Stone's film and all those other modern-day horror shows, the fact that there's something weirdly likable, even endearing, about the murderous creep the movie takes as its subject, ensures that the public and private debate on Chopper is unlikely to end any time soon.
Chopper tells the story of Mark Brandon Read, a.k.a. Chopper, a hulking, mad dog killer who — and this is where things really get weird — actually exists in real life. The real Chopper, as it happens, is not only one of Australia's most notorious lowlifes, he's the best-selling author of nine books (including one called How To Shoot Friends and Influence People) in which Mr. Read gleefully chronicles a lifetime of abominable behavior, even embellishing his actions on occasion (something he freely admits to) in order to spice things up a bit for the audience. Whatever it takes to keep the flame of fame burning.
In keeping with the slippery, anarchistic spirit of the film, director Andrew Dominik cast a comedian as the movie's titular maniac. Mark "Chopper" Read is played by Eric Bana, a popular TV comedian in Australia. Frankly, he's an inspired choice. Bana is on screen almost every second of the film, and he strikes just the right balance between full-blown psychotic aggressiveness and something very close to good-natured charm.
You never know when Chopper's going to go off — when he's going to buddy up to someone or when he's going to jab a knife in their guts. The two reactions are bizarrely entwined for Read, a misanthropic people person who doesn't seem at all confused or conflicted about who or what he is. Bana makes both aspects of his larger-than-life character all too believable, and Chopper revels in the weird tension produced by that inexplicable duality.
We're first introduced to Chopper Read in 1991, as he sits in his jail cell watching himself being interviewed on the telly. A massive collection of scars and tatooed fleshiness, Chopper holds court in a tiny cell bathed in the TV's blue light and decorated with newspaper clippings of his numerous misadventures. He's the life of his own party, surrounded by fawning prison guards in awe of his celebrity status, as everyone watches the TV interviewer (who appears equally charmed) ask Chopper if he's nuts or what. "I'm just a normal bloke," he answers, in what appears to be perfect sincerity. Then he adds with a big, winning grin, "a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture."
It's never exactly clear how much of Chopper is fact and how much is fiction (based on the books of Read, a notorious liar, the film admits that further "narrative liberties have been taken"). But the truth is hardly the point here. What's really important is the myth, and Chopper (both the man and the movie) specializes in mythmaking. The chief problem, though, is that myth is basically all the film has to offer. Chopper unravels like a collection of tall tales — very bloody tall tales — that feels more like a scattered series of disconnected episodes than a complete movie with a sense of symmetry or some sort of vision.
Chopper never really sticks with one storyline for too long, first flashing us back to 1976, where a significantly trimmer Chopper is again imprisoned (this time for abducting a judge) and is bullying or buddying up to (but mostly bullying) everyone in sight. This opening segment establishes the far-flung parameters of our antihero's character, and culminates in Chop's former best pal stabbing him at least a half-dozen times.
Chopper is way too stubborn to die, though, and after another murder or two, and having his own ears voluntarily hacked off (don't ask), we next see him some 10 years later, a free man at last. The final sections of the film careen somewhat blithely and senselessly from Chop's "relationship" with his hooker girlfriend to run-ins with his dad, a former cellmate, drug dealers and other assorted scum-of-the-earth friends and enemies, all of whom essentially amount to less than zero.
None of this obviously makes for a very pretty picture, but it's almost always a pretty engaging and provocative one — and frequently quite funny as well, in an outlandish and deliberately absurd sort of way.
The movie's visual look has a similar sort of ugly beauty, built upon a palette of unnatural greens, oranges and blues that make everything look as if it was shot under the fluorescent lights of a public toilet. But does it really add up to anything, as the movie's many detractors are demanding to know? Probably not, but we can only wonder if a movie like Chopper needs to "add up" to anything in order to do what it sets out to do. That there is no message in a world like the one the film depicts might just be message enough.