In just over ten years, Eric Bana has come a long, long way. The 42 year-old has transformed from an unknown Aussie into a Hollywood star in a little more than a decade, with a recent filmography including hefty roles in Munich and Star Trek amongst others. So when you sit down to watch Chopper, you wonder who this giant tattooed brute in the first scene is, and what he’s done with the real Eric Bana.
Massive in both physique and personality, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read remains one of Australia’s most feared and notorious criminals. This film, based on the titular inmate’s series of semi-autobiographical books, recounts Read’s criminal adult life and the legacy of violence and instability which has led him to this point. Famed for only killing other criminals, but never being convicted of it, we see footage of citizens championing Chopper as a sort of righteous killer, and to an extent the man himself begins to believe in his own myth. Starting and ending in 1992, Chopper still serving a 16-year stretch behind bars for trying to kill a judge, the story is largely told in flashback, as we begin to get an insight into the brains behind the considerable brawn.
From Capote to Ray to Nixon to Patton, eponymous movies always hinge on their central performances, and Chopper is no exception to that rule. Bana is in every scene of the film, whether being interviewed for TV, “bashing” a rival inmate, getting stabbed or going out clubbing. The hulking figure (no pun intended, in Bana’s case) of Chopper lingers like an immense shadow in every sequence, and Bana’s portrayal of Read is visceral, frank and spectacular; Bana spent a few days living with the real Read in preparation for the role after Chopper had requested Bana by name as the actor to play him.
Physically menacing and emotionally volatile to say the very least, Bana’s Chopper projects his personality onto everyone, by force if necessary. Prone to moments of extreme rage – see his fight with on-off prostitute girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beahan) or his outburst at a club – Chopper is at times a seemingly unstoppable force; his massive feet kicking doors down, his giant hands gripping guns and people with no little ferocity. However, what gives depth to what could become a facile juggernaut of a performance is Bana’s nuanced interpretations of Chopper’s mental state, namely his crippling loneliness, brought on both by his terrifying reputation and inability to really connect with ordinary folk. When stabbed by his closest prison friends, the pain in Bana’s eyes is psychological rather than physical, and the agonising sorrow that wells up is deeply affecting.
Even with such a powerhouse at its heart, Chopper the movie has to fill in the blanks outside of Read’s memory, and does so by playing with chronology, not just in the main plot, but in some subsidiary scenes: showing a real event, Chopper’s explanation of it, and then its true reality. It’s an interesting concept used by director Andrew Dominik, and helps to communicate the severity of the fractures in Chopper’s psyche, as well as his ability to spin a good yarn. The prison scenes are unsurprisingly bleak in the main, the camera struggling to escape the dull clutches of featureless grey walls, while scenes ‘on the outside’ are filled with colour: unsurprisingly, the most common one is red, as Chopper spills a great deal of blood. This interior-as-bleak/exterior-as-colourful style is a technique we’ve also seen resurface recently in prison films like Hunger and Un Prophète.
At a relatively trim 94 minutes, Dominik’s film is as focused and relentless as its protagonist, but such is the (understandable) desire to keep the camera on Bana at all times that some of the relationship dynamics get lost in the fog. The intermittent scenes Chopper shares with his father are very intriguing but sparse in dialogue terms: whilst this communicates the disconnect between father and son nicely, the fleeting discussions the pair have merit further investigation, especially the offhand remarks Chopper’s dad makes hinting as his own criminal history. Similarly, the relationship (such as it is) with Tanya becomes a touch one-note and we never really see what drew them together in the first place. It seems a case of kiss, chat, Chopper loses it, repeat. Again this is done with a purpose in mind, to show once more Chopper’s emotional isolation, but it’s another interesting combination which is left somewhat unexplored.
Chopper, though, is largely interested in using the past to predict the future. Where Chopper’s been is leading him to where he’s going, which we soon discover is nowhere at all. The central tragedy of the film, portrayed superbly through Bana’s subtle touches here and there, is bordering on Greek classicism: despite having been surrounded by people all his life, either fellow criminals or inmates or friends, Chopper is really alone. The final shot of the movie, showing Bana in his prison cell, is a last salute to a man who will never lead a real life.
9/10: Bana’s stunning turn adds a point or two to this mark, his effortless ability to switch between blind fury, mental trauma and utter despair is incredible, his performance captivating. Dominik adds a few nice directorial touches here and there, but it’s a one-man parade for huge parts. Despite missing out on a couple of really interesting sub-plot opportunities, it’s difficult to fault Chopper as an evaluation, consideration and, in some parts, a damnation, of one of the most charasmatic criminals of the last 25 years.