Did you ever feel like you should take a shower after watching a film? Well, I suppose I could say that about Taxi Driver, but Scorsese's landmark film has images that have endured and gives us something to think about. Not so with Chopper, Andrew Dominik's first feature film about a sociopath, determined to exploit others for power and recognition. (I'm writing up a few notes on this film immediately after viewing because it's not a film that will live long in my memory, nor should it.)
For 15-minutes of fame, some men will go to great lengths. Such a man is Aussie criminal Mark "Chopper" Read (Eric Bana), the amateurishly tattooed sociopath framed in Dominik's film with a segment of Chopper watching a television feature interview of himself and enjoying it immensely.
One task is figuring out how much of Chopper's tales to believe. When the television reporter relates the story about Chopper cutting off the toes of other inmates, she asks him why he does it. His answer is hilarious: "I like the way they pop off." And when the guards who watch the television feature with him ask why he's said such a thing, Read simply states "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
So is this guy for real? The character is based on a real person, but the disclaimer at the beginning states that the events are dramatizations and not intended to be entirely true to life. On the other hand, to gain insight into his character, actor Eric Bana did spend two days living with the real Mark "Chopper" Read, who has written bloody memoirs exploiting all the criminals that he's ever smashed to a bloody pulp. A best seller in Australia, it brings irony to the character's words—"I can't even bloody spell, but I'm a best-selling author!"
Proceed with caution on this arthouse film. The theatrical version is not rated; however, the video release has been rated NC-17 in the United States, mostly for over the top violence. You never know when this low-lifer will erupt and stab another prisoner in the neck or blow someone's head apart with a shotgun after he's released into the streets of Melbourne.
Although director/writer Dominik shows promise, there's nothing terribly original in his film. Dominik has studied Gus Van Sant’s work obviously because the rapidly passing clouds over the prison walls in the opening hearken back to My Private Idaho (and other films that imitate this vision). Those fleeting images are rather attractive and do indicate passage of time at the prison edifice, so I won't condemn his copycat imagery here.
Later Dominik throws some washed out images with jerky motions used by Oliver Stone and his MTV influenced cohorts ad infinitem over the past few years. Any time I see such overused techniques, I automatically downgrade the film on originality. The same thing goes for any cheap sophomoric bathroom “humor” shots, like exposing your penis in public for deliberate shock value.
Basically, the best thing that the director does with is let Eric Bana use his natural charisma to carry the film. The wildly erratic character is violent at times and seems remorseful after wreaking havoc. There really isn't any real character development since the anti-hero essentially remains unchanged and unreliable throughout.
Not much happens throughout the film, and only the touches of humor supplied by Chopper and his dad (Kenny Graham) maintain any relationship with the character. Bana might actually prove to be an excellent actor when given the right script because he does carry this plodding 93-minute movie single-handedly.
What is the film is about then? The straightforward response: there's this creepy guy who sometimes gets mad and beats the shit out of people, or he becomes masochistic and lets someone try to punch holes in his stomach or carve up his ears like Vincent Van Gogh to jettison himself to the prison hospital. And there's a ton of blood.
Lots of blood, but what's the point? There is no redemption like Taxi Driver—just cold-hearted emptiness. In fact, after the television interview is finished, Chopper blankly stares at the TV and reminds us of Peggy Lee's song, "Is That All There Is?" Where do you go when the fabrications don’t even create a good story?
Rather short-lived on the arthouse circuit, the film is now available on DVD. Unless you just enjoy seeing blood for the sake of seeing blood, you won't miss much by skipping Chopper. Nihilistic thoughts for the sake of creating nihilism leads to a lot of nothingness.
At best, Chopper will remind you to take a shower afterwards.