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Around the World: Chopper

Michael Maitland-Jones looks at this biopic of one of Australia's most notorious criminals

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Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts.

Image: First Look Studios

Mark 'Chopper' Read was many things; possibly psychopathic, a T.V personality, best-selling author, and also the subject of one very unusual film that is quite possibly the last thing the Australian tourism board would want anyone to see.

Directed by Andrew Dominik who would later go on to make the brilliant Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the film has explicitly stated to be a semi-autobiographical account of the controversial Aussie criminal containing some elements that are presumably heavily fictionalized. The story takes us from Chopper's unconventional stay in prison to his status as an absurd cult-icon and keeps up an appropriately surreal tone that feels in line with the events being witnessed. The first half of the film contains a handful of moments so strange, and stomach churning, that you'd think the film would be on course to devolve into an absurdist B-movie mess. It doesn't. Right up to its final scene Chopper is a brilliantly executed character study that's jaw-dropping, hilarious and disturbing by turns; as an entry into both the prison-movie and crime genres it's a landmark, as a duel debut for director Dominik and lead actor Eric Bana it's near astonishing.

A quick word on Erick Bana; in playing the titular Chopper he gives the sort of performance that's so brilliantly unhinged and indescribable in its nature that it was destined never to be recognised by any sort of mainstream award, and frankly all the better for it; throughout he is hilarious, terrifying and oddly vulnerable. It's the kind of performance that's highly watchable but will also be too unpredictable for many to feel comfortable with. It's a pity that aside from Spielberg's Munich Bana never got much in the way of hefty roles following Chopper. Everything he does in the role (down to a staggering physical transformation) equals what Tom Hardy achieved with a very similar, but slightly more artistically inclined, character in the UK's very own portrait of a charismatic psycho: Bronson.

Chopper's fascinating inventiveness as well as its sheer entertainment value made it a hit in Australia but unsurprisingly it took some years for it to find an audience elsewhere (it's just possible that the film's infamous ear-slicing sequence made it a little too hot to handle for US and UK distributors). The film is definitely not for the overly squeamish or easily offended but it's also a wonderful example of a low-budget film that feels like it pushes the boundaries of filmmaking in every regard. Chopper is a wince-inducing black comedy that's humour, if nothing else, has something unmistakably Aussie about it.

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