Australian culture can’t help but make icons and heroes out of some of the most notorious criminals. The myth of Ned Kelly’s anti-establishment, anti-police persona has forged a legacy that turned him into a celebrated man, a figure whose existence in Australian culture has endured as a beacon for people to believe whatever they choose to see in him. His anti-police role in society helped create his celebrity, and even with Kelly killing police officers who harmed his friends and family, and causing all manner of damage to society as a bushranger, thousands signed petitions to stop him from being hung to death.
Justin Kurzel’s searing True History of the Kelly Gang worked to slam the door shut on Kelly’s legacy, suggesting that the applied importance of his ‘final’ words – such is life – were misguided, with reports that he never actually said them, and instead they were pushed into his history via the mouth of a politician. Kurzel’s film examines the relationship Australia has with lionising criminals as celebrities, asking what the weight of fame built up throughout history does to our perception of their illegal exploits.
Ned Kelly didn’t have the benefit of a broad media landscape in the 1800’s to tell his side of the story, but given the cyclical nature of history, it seems fortuitous that Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read would pick up Kelly’s celebrated and iconic criminal legacy and use the avenues of television and writing to spawn the ‘Cult of Chopper’: a troupe of champions and supporters both domestically and internationally who saw the famed criminal as a champion for them.
Andrew Dominik’s feature debut as writer and director, Chopper, masterfully collates the vibe and ethos of Chopper into a ninety minute powderkeg of a film. Utilising an overwhelming master of imitation, Eric Bana, to portray the mammoth violent figure, Dominik creates a film that’s full of gut-twining tension, with tar black comedy, both working in parallel with one another, making for a disturbing level of awareness of the height of celebrity within Australia.
This is not a birth to adult story, colouring in how Chopper became the crim he was. Instead, Dominik focuses on slightly fictionalised moments in Chopper’s life, bookending the film with Chopper’s life in prison. Pulled from Chopper’s extensive bibliography, and other reports about his criminal exploits, Chopper actively engages with the legend that he became, admiring his art of storytelling, and reflecting on the impact his presence had on the criminal world of Victoria.
Bana’s Chopper is entrancing, an enjoyably bleak and complex figure who creates an alluring air of comfort and ease to sit with, where one minute he’s your best mate, and the next he’s stabbing someone in the face. For those who grew up in the nineties, Bana’s move from comedy icon on Full Frontal and Eric, where he made a name as the mullet-wearing bogan Poida, to kung-fu boyfriend Con in The Castle, to playing Chopper felt like a natural transition.
Poida’s uber-ocker story-weaving character came as a comfort to those who always felt like they were the brunt of the joke, the punching bag for elites to laugh at the tradies and workers of Australia. Bana was on their side, a stance that he’s maintained throughout a career dedicated to Aussie culture, with his brilliant doco Love the Beast focusing on the thrill of car racing, or even his ability to drag St Kilda Football Club to the world of Adam Sandler with Funny People. He has, and always will be, a true blue Aussie icon.
That ease and comfort that Bana created throughout his young career made his deft transition to the ease and comfort that the media had supported of Mark Read feel so natural. Chopper isn’t you average bloke, he’s a thug, a crim, a violent brute who stabs first and apologises later; but he still feels like ‘one of us’, with his lackadaisical larrikin vibe, and a powerful penchant for weaving an excellent, captivating story. Aussie’s love a good yarn, no matter how tall it is, and in the realm of Aussie story-tellers, there’s few as captivating as Mark Read.
Chopper is undeniably charismatic, he entices with openness and comfortable Aussie comedy, and disarms with a false-relatability. Bana’s meek, observant, and calm portrayal of him is one of the great strengths of the film, making moments where he’s stabbed by lifelong friend Jimmy Loughnan (a stunning Simon Lyndon) bleakly comedic and unsettling. He simply stands there, absorbing each knife impact with quiet shock, uttering the horrifically hilarious line, ‘Jimmy, if you keep stabbing me, you’re going to kill me’.
Elsewhere, Bana slithers his way through conversations, conniving and tricking his subjects into exposing their hidden agendas, helping unveil the truth within Chopper’s simmering paranoia. As the film nears its conclusion, Chopper visits Jimmy at his home, where he lives with his fiancé (pronounced with deft-ockerisation brilliantly by Lyndon as ‘fee-on-see’) and kids in a smoke-filled apartment of grime and heroin. There’s a hit out on Chopper’s head, and he comes to Jimmy for some kind of atonement. As Chopper realises that Jimmy’s in on the job, he pulls a gun on him, leading to the climax of the twelve minute tense conversation, with Jimmy terrified for his life, screaming ‘Mark! You’re being fucking paranoid!’
Chopper’s response exposes who he is as a person completely, someone who is both right, but horrifyingly wrong: ‘just because I’m being paranoid, doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to kill me’. It’s telling that in the long out-of-print DVD commentary, Mark Read states a powerful line: paranoia is the criminal equivalent of intelligence.
There’s a balance with Chopper, a man who wants to be harnessing and taming the criminal world through the art of torture and violence. He’d rip off drug dealers, threaten them with death as he ‘popped off’ toes with secateurs, torturing them til they paid up so he didn’t have to kill him. Outwardly, Chopper had stated he’d killed anywhere from four to seven people, but in his books he’d claimed he’d been involved with killing nineteen people, and had an attempted murder record of eleven people. These figures are badges of honour to Chopper, statements of his criminal success.
It’s fascinating then that the real-world actions of Chopper had been used in films like Drive to make their lead characters appear heroic. To be clear, Refn’s film doesn’t idolise the nameless lead character Ryan Gosling plays, but the audience certainly grew to applaud the hammer-wielding man who pashed ‘the girl’ after bashing the head in of a nameless goon. And yet, that same kind of violence and brutality is what made both Chopper and its subject such unassailable icons in Australian culture.
There’s an uneasy comfort to Chopper, especially as he talks about disrepute in the crime world, and how this is just crims being crims, having little impact on society as a whole. His perspective of Australia was that the world of regular society operated in a completely different landscape than that of the criminal world. He walked the same streets as everyone, but his actions only affected other crims. It’s easy to see Robin Hood-style allusions of grandeur from Chopper, an aspect of his myth that the media was all too keen to feed into.
When asked by Renée Brack’s television interviewer about how he sees himself, Bana’s Chopper replies that he’s ‘just a bloke. Just a good bloke down on his luck.’ To Chopper, violence amongst friends is just that – friendly banter. A light stab here, a gunshot there, there’s nothing to it, and it’s easily forgotten. When Jimmy stabs Chopper in prison, after at $10k bounty is put on Chopper’s head, and the screws ask Chopper about what went on, Chopper refuses to rat on him, saying another excellent line: ‘the blokes been my best mate since 1975. We’ve had our fallouts from time to time. It’s no big deal. It’s like if your mum stabbed you.’ Implying immediate forgiveness for a possibly death-inducing altercation.
Equally so, in that moment where Jimmy thinks he’s nursing Chopper into death, the two embrace each other like the closest of friends. Faces close together, blood seeping out of Chopper’s stabwounds with brilliant makeup effects, this moment of intimacy exposes the off-kilter elements of bonding in the crime world. Later, when Chopper encounters the fictional character of Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo’s finest performance), there’s a moment of tension between the two, with Chopper unsure whether Bartos wants to do him in right there and then. The water under the bridge exchange colours how outwardly remorseful Chopper could be about his actions, with Chopper stating ‘I don’t know if you remember, Neville, but I had that bloody shotgun pointed at your head. I reconsidered and dropped it down to your kneecap.’ As if that moment of reconsideration is the grandest act of charity one could ever make.
The Chopper as represented here is one that suffers from immediate remorse. He stabs a man in the face, and apologises seconds later, offering a cigarette as atonement. On the commentary track, the real Chopper mentions his shared surprise with his on screen doppelganger that their victim would dare reject such a kind offer as a lit cigarette. Later, when he bashes his girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beahan) in the face, and then her mum (Pam Western) as well, he pushes the blame on Tanya for ‘upsetting your mum’.
We laugh through gritted teeth at moments of brutal horror, with Bana’s delivery of the line being cruelly comedic, as are many other lines throughout the film. But our laughter is reflected back on us, as if we’re complicit in celebrating his rise to infamy, his journey into debauchery, and his illegal exploits.
The sound design amplifies this tension, with moments of violence like when Keithy George (David Field) is being stabbed in the face hitting boiling point with a barely distinguishable sports commentator blaring on a radio. Later, a squealing kettle makes a gun in the face all the more unsettling.
These design elements could feel showy or performative in any other film, but in Chopper, each aspect adds to the tightrope balance of tension. The climax of the film focuses around the death of Sammy the Turk (Serge Liistro) at Bojangles nightclub, a farcical moment that evolves into a pantomime-esque charade of brilliance. For a moment, Chopper turns into pure theatre, with characters delivering rhyming couplets that detail the occurrence of that fateful night that put Chopper back behind bars. If Chopper himself weren’t such a heightened bullshit artist, this scene wouldn’t work as well as it does, but it’s as apt as anything else here, a masterful creative decision that paid off brilliantly.
Again in the commentary, Chopper talks about how he did bash down the door of partners, but says that he’ll neither ‘confirm or deny the actions on screen’, giving a strong allusion that he engaged in domestic violence. Decades later, Read took part in an anti-domestic violence advertising campaign, a pulled clip that featured a bizarre tirade about the men who beat on women being weak and how they ought to be afraid, because in jail, rapists get the worst treatment. In the short thirty second clip, the threat of violence burns in his eyes, the keen desire to inflict some kind of pain, some kind of brutality on those who have done wrong, is a source of ecstasy. Yet, he’s distinctly unaware that his own violence breeds further violence.
The bulldog threat that Chopper was to other thugs made the reality of a bounty on his head a permanent aspect of day to day life. It was expected for Chopper, a way of living, and his relationship with the police flourished because of this. Dominik’s writing and direction plays this relationship as a joyful lark for Chopper, with his recognition of their authority being a source of comfort and safety for him. Between the age of twenty and thirty eight, Chopper only spent thirteen months outside of prison, with much of that time being depicted within the film itself.
In the downbeat ending, backed by the chilling score by Mick Harvey, we see the tableau of Chopper, alone in a cell, nothing but the blue, cold light embracing him, a cigarette in his hand and finally devoid of an audience. It’s a powerful image to finish on. For the viewers, we see a pathetic figure existing by himself, his violence and exploits having gotten him nowhere in life. On the commentary track, Read mentions about how that shot is supposed to be sad, but for him, that prison was home, a place of comfort.
The cinematography by Geoffrey Hall and Kevin Hayward goes a long way to amplify the disturbing life of Chopper, with dulled neon lights of chilled red, frozen blues, and murky greens, colouring each scene. If portrayed as a basic crime drama, Chopper, would likely not have been as celebrated as it is, but that powerful aesthetic sets it apart from its genre counterparts. It’s unlike any other Australian crime film, or for that reasoning, any other crime film in cinema history. It is devilishly unique, reflecting the ethos of Mark Read in every frame, holding a mirror up to his conflicted soul. This is otherworldly, as if it was taking place out of time and history, like an anomaly in the world.
A decade later, David Michôd pulled crime back to the suburbs with Animal Kingdom, reminding audiences how close this criminal threat is to everyone. Ben Mendelsohn’s charismatic ‘Pope’ is a crime lord pulled from the same bow that Chopper operates within. Downright terrifying, but equally entrancing, the impact of Chopper, the master of tales, is inescapable.
Furthermore, Dominik’s direction clearly influenced its modern thematic counterpart, Acute Misfortune, Thomas M. Wright’s anxiety-inducing film about Chopper’s colleague and co-writer, Adam Cullen. The two co-wrote the book Hooky the Cripple, with Cullen drawing the imagery for Chopper’s words.
Chopper’s solitude in prison allowed him to write countless books, making him one of the highest selling authors in Australian history. From within the cold walls of prison, Read conjured a legend that infected society. This self-made authorial celebrity lead to him getting the chance of being interviewed on TV, with the pedigree of journalist Mike Willisee assisting a career criminal in extending his cult into the homes of Australia.
Yet, Chopper, as the master of tall tales, the weaver of narratives about his own success, was always in control of who he was perceived to be. It wasn’t hard to see through his bullshit, with Read being one of the finest artists around, but his peacock like prowess and arrogant smarts made him a saint, a celebrity of the underworld, a proud figure of crime who we all bought into. Heck, even Chopper bought into his own success, finding joy in mythologising and falsifying his own legacy. After all, what criminal was going to come forward and tell the other side of the story?
Dominik’s film adds to that mythology, but at least from a critical stance that exposes the horrors of Chopper’s actions for what it was. ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn’ is the core mindset of Read, and given his eager support of the film and Bana’s performance, it’s clear that muddying the waters of mythology is all ok by him.
Chopper lost to Looking for Alibrandi as the Best Film at the 2001 AFI Awards, a fact that Read finds amusing on the commentary track, stating ‘comparing this film to Alibrandi is like comparing a rattlesnake to a barbie doll’. Up until Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Chopper was the highest grossing R-rated film in Australia, with its exceptionally quotable dialogue being key to its enduring legacy. It’s frustrating then that this film is relatively difficult to track down, with the DVD being out of print, and presumed rights issues holding the film away from streaming platforms. A 20th Century Fox logo at the start of the DVD hints at the possible rights issues facing the film.
Chopper closes with the statement that Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read lives on a farm in Tasmania, being one of Australia’s highest selling authors. In 2008, Read revealed he only had years left to live, and that he had been eligible to receive a liver transplant, but in some kind of altruistic manner, he rejected any possible organ donation. Detached from the mainland, he eventually died of liver cancer in 2013.
While this is a magnificent film, arguably one of the finest in the Australian film landscape, I can’t help but wonder if this kind of narrative helps further the ‘Cult of Chopper’. Read lived long enough to see himself parodied by Heath Franklin, a comedian who essentially created a career around lampooning him. Read monopolised on his gifted fame with speaking tours, ads about drunk driving and domestic violence, and even the odd comedy festival appearance. Later, his story was turned into a season of the massively successful true-crime series, Underbelly.
Is he the modern Ned Kelly? A criminal hero? Does the fact that his victims were criminals themselves make the celebration and deification of his life alright?
Sitting in prison, Chopper flips through photos upon photo of fans who have sent him mail from around the world, some of scantily clad women with Chopper tattoos, others of people reenacting the murder of Sammy the Turk. He jokes, ‘ol chop chop doing his bit for tourism Victoria’, and horrifyingly, there’s some truth to this statement.
Which is the irony of Chopper, and its subject. The truth is there, but it’s wrapped up in the beer-fuelled sardonic humour and wit that makes Chopper spin his own version of it into existence. Andrew Dominik is one of Australia’s finest directors, and for this to be his first feature film is a testament to his skill and power as an artist. By lifting up Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read to the height of being a film icon, trapped in celluloid for generations to come, he both celebrates him, while also criticising him perfectly.
This is a masterpiece of a film, a sign that Australian cinema can reach monstrous heights of glory. Critically evaluating this film two decades on shows that its stature as an enduring classic will not wither with time, and just like the legacy of Ned Kelly, it will morph, and change, and transform as the legacy of Chopper continues to grow and morph and change alongside it.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, Vince Colosimo
Writer: Andrew Dominik, (based on the writing of Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read)