The relative absence of Australian true crime stories on our cinema screens is puzzling. Our criminal history has no shortage of outrageous, gruesomely fascinating, extreme characters and episodes – stories which effortlessly mix personal pathology and social context.
Local television has sometimes mined this area effectively – although often with an over-active social conscience functioning as a form of self-censorship – but our movies have, for the most part, missed a golden opportunity.
Indeed, one has to flash back seventeen years, to Frank Shields' vigorous and underrated Hostage: The Christine Maresch Story (1983), to find a local film which combines exciting cinema with instantly recognisable, ready-made plot material.
Andrew Dominik's Chopper at least has the virtue of putting the notorious figure of Mark Brandon Read squarely at the centre of our attention. The film is not detached, moralising or overly analytical. Its approach is more visceral than political. It boldly seeks to involve us emotionally in Chopper's drive, energy and rough wit – so that we can experience the queasiness of complicity with such a man, and truly feel a recoil of revulsion as the story progresses.
In this sense, Chopper connects to a line of contemporary, mainly American movies such as Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983) and Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990): films about anti-hero gangsters who live out widespread, unconscious fantasies of individualistic power, success and revenge. By pushing himself beyond the pale of civilised society and its rules, the criminal anti-hero so beloved of pop culture becomes a handy scapegoat. As viewers, we join vicariously in his lawless spree, but also comfort ourselves with the recognition that he is a lost, damned soul.
Those who earnestly question the ethics and morality of a project like Chopper – wondering whether it unnecessarily glorifies a violent criminal – have obviously not kept abreast of popular cinema for the past thirty years. Then again, this timid backlash is perhaps understandable within a strictly local context: tame, cute, period movies like Squizzy Taylor (1982) have hardly accustomed us to the tough, push-and-pull contradictions of the American genre model.
Unfortunately Chopper, no matter how savvy its intentions, falls well short of this model. Its one completely successful element is the lead performance by Eric Bana. This is an inspired piece of casting, and Bana seizes every opportunity to project both monstrosity and a strange, undeniable, very ocker charm. Unlike so many Australian actors, Bana's special gift is a commanding, ingeniously modulated voice – a feature which the film wisely foregrounds.
Chopper, however, suffers from the greatest, abiding problem of the biopic form – finding a central core, a cohering theme or idea. Any screen biography – even one with poetic license liberally added – can too easily become a fan of colourful but disconnected incidents. There are structural challenges as well – selecting an appropriate slice of the life, inventing some way to frame or bookend the story, working out what to include and exclude.
Chopper picks up the criminal's life in 1978, as he pursues territorial control in jail. It follows him out of prison, and then eventually back in, to the point when he becomes a media celebrity. Some incidents beyond this time-span (such as his attempted kidnapping of a judge) are clumsily alluded to verbally. A weak and rather obvious framing device labours the point that, although crime sometimes does pay, killers can end up rather lonely and pathetic.
Despite the input of four script editors and one additional dialogue writer, Dominik's screenplay never works a meaningful shape into this chronicle. Certain key themes are merely signalled in a throwaway fashion – especially Chopper's ascendancy, via the media, into 'folk hero' status, the kind of ironic, populist worship which is so central to crime films including Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Badlands (1973).
More damagingly, the characterisation of Chopper is like a disconcerting, skittish patchwork. He is, in rapid succession, compared to every legendary male figure imaginable: Christ (a suffering leader), Van Gogh (visionary with no ears), Mishima (masochist on a sacrificial kick), Jake La Motta (bully with a weight problem). His wonderful taunt to fellow prisoner Keithy (David Field) – "Even Beethoven had his critics. Name three" – suggests an intellectual or cultured side which is not evident at any other moment.
Dominik's attempts at psychologising Chopper explain little, ultimately: the criminal's mania for apologising to those he hurts or kills; his fondness for tall stories; his sexual paranoia; his childhood (very awkwardly alluded to in scenes with his father, played by Kenny Graham); his intense bonding with other men. The film seems to rapidly try on different interpretations of its anti-hero – repressed homo-eroticism, macho madness, brutalised 'white trash' upbringing – and then discard them just as quickly.
The film's style is also an unresolved patchwork of conflicting influences. For the most part, it adopts a cool, sparse, bleached-out approach, clearly wishing to emulate the disquieting mood of The Boys (1998) – whose maker, Rowan Woods, here directs 2nd Unit photography. Dominik is no master at minimalism, however – much of this material looks merely flat and cheap, and it ends up evacuating a much-needed sense of the character's social milieu.
So, to spice up proceedings, Dominik periodically introduces some filmic fireworks – slow motion, subjective shots, flashbacks from different viewpoints, colour flares. Like the fleeting grabs at psychological motivation and thematic significance, much of this razzle-dazzle feels second hand – the film is so derivative of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Taxi Driver that Martin Scorsese should be collecting royalties on it.
Chopper is an admirable attempt at making one kind of audience-grabbing film that Australian cinema has hitherto lacked. It is worth seeing – mainly for Bana's acting – but it could have been so much better. The ultimate local crime movie remains to be made.
© Adrian Martin August 2000