A Good Yarn
If Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone had made this film, audiences would likely delight in scoffing at the utter ridiculousness of the plot and outrageousness of the characters. But, in true “Let’s be different, ‘cause, well . . . we are” Australian fashion, Chopper is actually a true story. Kind of.
If you grew up in 1970s-‘80s Melbourne, you know the name Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read from the stories your dad used to tell you, to the brutal front page pictures that appeared in newspapers with some regularity. Chopper was a bogeyman-type myth who used wit and sarcasm to become a beloved icon, a hero, regardless of his crimes. A Melbourne hitman who seemingly delighted not only in killing others, but also in mutilating himself, Chopper was known to us as the bloke with no ears who shot other criminals. He also became a best-selling author of nine books, including How To Win Friends And Kill People and Pulp Faction.
All this is to say that first-time filmmaker Andrew Dominik has taken on one hell of a subject. A film about Read was sure to be made, but one would have figured it to turn out more like Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 self-obsessed, unsympathetic, almost pointless Romper Stomper. Thank god it hasn’t. Basing his film on Chopper’s nine books, Dominik has taken what he calls “narrative liberties,” not making a film about his life and exploits as such, but amalgamating “facts” (some of them his own creation) to give the viewer a general sense of what this man was like. It’s a confrontational, if manipulative, style, never offering excuses for Chopper’s behaviour. There’s no obligatory flashback to an unfavourable childhood. There’s no real evidence of the influence of drugs. He is who is because he is. That’s it.
The film is spilt into two very definite halves: Chopper on the inside versus Chopper on the outside. It opens on Chopper watching his now infamous interview for a current affairs program, the interview that created the legend. Why Chopper went to jail in the first place is only briefly mentioned, and what he has done from 1991 until now (including further charges and arrests) are nowhere to be found. All Dominik is interested in showing us is a bunch of events that lead to Chopper’s day in the sun.
It’s 1978 and Chopper’s locked in Pentridge Prison’s deliciously scary H Division. We are introduced to the four walls of the now defunct establishment to the tune of “Don’t Fence Me In.” A scuffle unfolds between Chopper and inmate Keithy George (David Field), leaving Chopper with a contract out on him. He recruits buddies Bluey (Dan Wyllie) and Jimmy (beautifully played by Simon Lyndon) to start a riot, putting an end to the whole contract debacle, but they turn on him along with everyone else. Knowing he has to leave the division, he has his ears cut off—and where Reservoir Dogs didn’t go, this movie does. Right down to the floppy bits. Chopper gets what he wants. He’s removed from H Division and serves the rest of his term elsewhere.
Cut to 1986. This is where part two begins. We watch as the freed Chopper walks on a crowded Melbourne street, which is lit much like the prison. For Chopper, the outside is no different from the inside. In a constant state of paranoia, Chopper, with his hooker girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beaham), runs into drug lord, Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo as a pimp daddy mafioso in tracksuit pants). Chopper and Neville have a past and Chopper suspects Tanya of sharing a relationship with him also. “Get away from me with that mouth,” he says to her, “it tastes of wog’s cock.” Tanya shuts Chopper out of her house for the night. Ever persistent, Chopper breaks the front door down and beats Tanya (and her mother) senseless. It’s here we learn just what is driving Chopper. Or do we?
“Look what you did,” he says while Tanya lays unconscious on the bathroom floor. “Your mum’s upset!” The scene pushes Chopper’s two-sidedness, in a clear attempt to persuade us one way before leading us another. We are constantly being manipulated as to how we should view Read, just like the general public at the time, just like the police. Here we see that his relationship with the police is an intriguing mateship: they tell him they will not turn a blind eye to his Samaritan-like butchering of heinous folks, yet don’t seem to mind his packing heat down the front of his pants. Chopper feels he’s “in” with the police, reporting to them his distaste for the way drugs are ruining the underworld. They seem to take pleasure, as do we, in listening to his many fabrications mixed in with bits of truth.
Read never likes to give out all the correct information—just enough to get him out of trouble, making sure that he’s viewed as “a good bloke.” In the film’s most powerful sequence, Jimmy and Bartos band together to take down Chopper. He’s led out of a nightclub into a parking lot by another underground figure, Sammy the Turk (Serge Liistro), but paranoia sets in, and Chopper shoots Sammy in head. We see this played out in the movie’s present, then twice more in flashback. Chopper tells the police a story that’s entirely different from the one we saw first, embellishing with worthy details that confuse the cops.
They aren’t confused enough that he doesn’t go to trial, however. We see the scene through the eyes of Jimmy’s wife, Mandy (Skye Wansey): Dominik is again underlining his central theme, that you can believe about this man what you will. It turns out she “saw” all that happened, and tells the court that Chopper shot Sammy in cold blood. Still, after we see the event as three versions, we are again left to make up our own minds. It’s Rashomon meets, well, Drowning Mona. Chopper’s knack for story-telling wins out again and he is acquitted of murder, but sentenced for the malicious wounding of Bartos. Back to the slammer he goes.
The film cuts back to Pentridge, and Read’s interview centring around the release of his first book. “A bestseller,” he says, “and I can’t even bloody spell.” We see the interview take place, then cut back to Chopper in his cell, watching it all on television with two policemen by his side. He asks the officers how he looked (“I think I came across as intelligent… but tough”). He laughs at his own smart-ass comments and revels in the camera’s love for him. “Did you really do all those things?” the cop asks him. He answers, “Well, you know, never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.”
Dominik’s presentation of events is original and thought-provoking. He points out from the very beginning of the piece that it is a dramatisation, not a biography. What we do see comes together strikingly well, revealing Read through diary-entry-like snippets of only a short period in his career. Dominik’s background in music videos is evident, and Geoffrey Hall and Kevin Hayward’s cinematography is awash with colour, giving the movie a cramped, prison-like feel. The film proceeds as if we’re inside Chopper’s head, while also being kept at arm’s length.
In his first leading role, Eric Bana (The Castle) won an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor. A seasoned comedy professional who once starred in his own sketch comedy series, Bana, he was an unlikely choice for this part, but pulls it off. He uses his imitative skills to become Read on screen. It’s a matter of moments before the happy, smiley Bana you know and love disappears, making way for a silver-toothed, foul-mouthed, scarred, and tattooed hulk of a ball-buster. He dominates the film even when he’s doing nothing: during a bar scene, a jukebox plays Cold Chisel’s “Forever Now.” Jimmy Barnes sings the anthemic line, “Is this the way it’s gonna be forever?”, as the camera pulls close to fill the frame with Chopper’s big head. It’s a brilliant image, highlighting Chopper’s solidity and rebelliousness, as well as his unwillingness, or perhaps his inability, to change.
Chopper is an incredible film. Dominik and co-producer Michele Bennett have cut a life with immense and immediate history down to fragments. The information they give us is just enough to formulate a sensationilised, yet fascinating rendering of what is already an embellished story to begin with, owing much thanks to Bana and the combination of merciless intelligence and muddled paranoia that is Chopper Read.