[Although this film is 14 years old, I recognize the possibility that many of you haven’t seen it. Therefore, there are some slight spoilers below. ]
As promised in last week’s introduction to this brief series of articles, today I take a look at director Andrew Dominik’s debut film Chopper, which was released in 2000. Based on From The Inside, the autobiography of Mark Brandon Read (aka “Chopper”), the film achieves something quite rare in that it manages to be unflinchingly brutal, warm, and funny in equal measure. A lot of crime films, especially after Pulp Fiction, have aspired to meld tones like this. But most of them have failed, in large measure because of their self-consciousness. Chopper isn’t self-conscious. It doesn’t achieve its alchemy by laying a grouping of desired ingredients out on the table and willing them to collide. The film is one hundred percent the result of an authentic interest in its subject. Dominik is so true to his reading of Read’s life that the film reads as an extension of his personality, not a genre checklist. In particular, there are three moments in the film’s first half that define it as a singular work, and those are what I’ll primarily be focusing on in this piece.
The film opens with Read (Eric Bana in his breakout role) serving a 16-year sentence in the H division of Australia’s Pentridge prison. Where most films would immediately go out of their way to illustrate the brutality of such a place with a series of cuts to various acts of shocking depravity, Dominik wisely applies that brutality to three uncomfortably intimate moments that define the film’s identity.
The first of these occurs when Read, almost reluctantly, shanks a fellow inmate in the face and neck in an effort to retain his standing in the division. The act itself is as quick and shocking as the multitude of prison stabbings you’ve no doubt seen onscreen, but the aftermath is unlike any of them. Read immediately pulls away and is palpably upset by what he’s done. As the inmate bleeds out Read tries to explain that he probably won’t lose enough blood to die and tentatively re-approaches him, sticking to the walls and corners of the holding cell in a manner as submissive as possible. Then he offers the inmate a cigarette. This is the difference between Dominik’s Chopper and any number of crime films released after 1994. Sure, a lot of those films would have Read offering up a cigarette as well, but it would mean something totally different. It would be in the service of irony. It would be an effort to establish and brand the director responsible as cool and hip. Here? That’s not the case. Here, Read legitimately wants to offer his victim some comfort, and a cigarette is the only instrument of kindness he has on him.
The second moment comes when Read himself is repeatedly stabbed in the stomach by Jimmy Loughnan (played by Simon Lyndon). It’s worth mentioning here that Loughnan is the entire reason Read is in prison in the first place since Read was pinched for kidnapping a judge in an effort to extort Loughnan’s release (though one senses Read would have found his way in jail at some point regardless). These stabs into Read’s gut don’t come quickly. They are punctuated by regret and fear on behalf of Loughlin and disappointment and curiosity on behalf of Read. They are punctuated by hugs and silence. They are not punctuated by Read debasing himself of the tenets that prop up his concept of honor among thieves. Read isn’t angry here, he’s hurt. And he knows that, if he lives, he will be forced to take revenge. The expected conclusion of this moment is further subverted in the form of a court hearing where Loughlin capably defends himself, all of the intimate remorse of his betrayal stripped away in favor of a gloating, preening defense built on a lie.
The third moment is quicker—and nastier—than the other two. Read employs a fellow inmate to saw his ears off with a straight razor in a (ultimately successful) bid to be released from Division H. On the page one imagines this scene being played out with a manic, Bronson-esque zeal: An overly enthusiastic recipient of bodily harm cowing with bravado as he loses chunks of his body. Again, not here. While the decision at hand is insane (or at least patently unwell), Bana plays it as quietly pragmatic. It’s a painful gambit and he wants it over with. It’s also immediately successful, which doesn’t make the plan seem quite so insane after all.
Even when Read is released from prison, a change that not only opens up the film’s color palette but sees Bana gaining a significant amount of weight (enabled by a month-long break in shooting), the film never falters in viewing the world through his lens, as expanded and filthy as it may comparatively be. And now that he’s in the “real world” (or underworld) we further understand that, for all of Read’s menace and psychopathic follow-through, he’s a surprisingly sensitive guy. He’s hurt when his father won’t acknowledge him. He’s dismayed when his junkie-prostitute girlfriend crosses the one boundary they let define their relationship. Read is broken, but not so much that he can’t feel. And it’s not all self-centered; he’s surprisingly empathetic towards those he has to shake up, graze with a bullet or flat-out shoot in the face. Again, this is not the affected sensitivity meant to signify the emergence of a “unique voice”; this is as organic as it gets. Dominik and Bana have captured a loud, boisterous and violent man who is recognizable as a human in a great deal of pain.
The visual aesthetic of Chopper doesn’t really approach the grandeur of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or the gritty polish of Killing Them Softly. Part of this stems from the film’s budget (which isn’t really helped along by one of the worst DVD transfers I’ve seen), but Chopper doesn’t need to be pretty. The man wasn’t. The man was messy, all over the place. A sad, lonely, clown crying on the inside and a vicious warrior. I don’t need an upgrade. Chopper doesn’t need an upgrade. The film is quick and powerful and transcends all limitations imposed upon it much like the majority of the life Read chose to live.
It would be seven years before Andrew Dominik’s follow-up was released. And while it shares some similar thematic territory with this debut, stylistically it would be almost unrecognizably different.
Next: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford