Before he was the geek turned unjolly green giant in THE HULK, before he was part of the hapless band of soldiers storming Mogadishu in BLACK HAWK DOWN, Eric Bana turned in a dazzling performance as the most personable psychopath you can imagine in CHOPPER. Fortunately for Bana and for us, the Sundance Channel will be running this Australian import throughout July.
Adapting his film freely from the bestselling autobiography written by Mark “Chopper” Read, writer-director Andrew Dominik eschews a strictly narrative style. The story is episodic, but filmed with some ingenious visuals that perfectly set the tone of the unreality (for us, anyway) of Chopper’s universe. Bleached and overexposed in the government lock-up, the sickly green cast to the squalor of an ex-con’s bleak apartment, the film speeded up ever so slightly as Chopper and his pals snort coke. The pieces of Chopper’s life are strung together, leaping back and forth through time, hitting the high and the low lights with equal intensity. By the end, the particulars of what happened when may not be perfectly clear, but that’s not important. The focus is on the lifestyle of a killer. While little about his formative years is specifically spelled out, we learn all we need to know when Chopper explains that when your mother stabs you, you don’t turn her in to the police, you get yourself to the hospital and that’s that. It’s part of his complicated but strict moral code that includes never driving someone you’ve just shot to the hospital (apparently it’s insulting to the person you’ve shot).
Bana, beefed up and sporting teeth that are either rotten or badly gilded, still has the face of an angel, even when those big brown eyes turn cold staring down the barrel of a gun. It helps to sell Chopper as a cheerful guy, ready with a smile and a mood that can turn convincingly from happy to homicidal on a dime. He’s also adept when it comes to the sometimes vicious black humor with which the film is spiked and that serves not so much to lighten the mood as to give further insight into the workings of the mind of a guy who’s just not right. Like his tendency to draw blood and then ask his victim if he’s okay while suffering genuine remorse, even offering one victim a cigarette as he slowly expires in a pool of his own blood, or his genuine indignation at the police officers who won’t believe him when he tries to take credit for a killing.
Hes dangerous, you wouldn’t want to know him personally, what with all those concealed weapons and raging paranoia, but Bana makes you unable to take your eyes off of him. There is a childlike quality to him as he dreams of the fame his crimes will bring him, and an odd capacity for joy that is infectious from this guy who sees himself as a regular bloke, though one who has had his ears sliced off as part of a prison scam.
Dominik avoids glamorizing Chopper’s violence. He never lets us forget that his peculiar charm is drenched in the blood of others, or that his worst enemy isn’t people who put contracts out on him, but rather, Chopper himself. At the core of Choppers story, there is an unexpected melancholy that raises this film above being just another slickly made excursion through the criminal netherworld and into the ranks of a classic tragedy.