The first Andrew Dominik film I watched was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It was an amazing film, and, at first glance, a serious contender for one of my all time favourites. Because I’m a completist (and not because I have some minor and undiagnosed form of OCD), I decided to watch the rest of Dominik’s filmography. This wasn’t actually that daunting an undertaking – the man has only directed three movies. I figured that if the other two were anything like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford there would be plenty to write about.
Chopper, which came out in 2000, marks not only the debut of Andrew Dominik but also the acting debut of Eric Bana. The foundation of the film bears an interesting and immediate resemblance to another film, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Both films deal with the story of a famous and slightly crazed prisoner, in one film British and in the other Australian. Both criminals were fairly obsessed with fame. Both turned to artistic pastimes later in their life. Both films largely drew on autobiographies written by the prisoners, as well as new research done for the film. Both films were given the stamp of approval by their real life counterparts; Charles Bronson simply adores Refn’s film, and Mark “Chopper” Read was even the one to suggest Eric Bana (at the time a fairly unknown comedian) for the lead role. It’s interesting to see these two very different filmmakers produce such similar works (there’s even some surreal beats in Chopper that are essentially toned down versions of VERY surreal moments from Bronson). Hell Ebert essentially makes the same comment in his reviews for both of them – he specifically points out and praises the lack of attempted psychoanalysis in both films. At the core these are very different filmmakers, but it’s interesting to see the surface similarities.
I do think, however, it will be much more interesting to examine Chopper in a vacuum, separate even from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Chopper starts with a flash forward. We see Chopper in his cell watching himself on TV. There’s a sudden cut, and we’re thrown into a cool intro. The intro to Chopper is a bunch of time-lapse photography of the prison, something that in our post-Breaking Bad world has almost become a cliché, but this film predates the rise of the trend. It’s a sequence that bears more than a passing resemblance to the House of Cards intro, establishing shots in Hannibal (also establishing shots in some shitty sitcom I’ve forgotten the name of), or even that one sequence in The Social Network. The technique pops up again later, in a scene that seems like it might’ve rubbed off on a few directors.
At about the sixteen-minute mark, the film solidifies itself as a true accomplishment. Chopper talks to his two loyal followers about his plans: he’s been fighting a gang war in the prison, and plans to end it in one sweep. His plan is to take a few guards hostage, block off the wing of the prison, and one by one cripple the other inmates in the wing. The plan clearly upsets his two followers, one of who, Jimmy Loughman, is Chopper’s childhood friend. In fact Chopper is only in prison because he tried to keep Jimmy out (by kidnapping a judge). Between Chopper’s drastic plan, and the price his enemies have put on his head, Loughman decides to turn on Chopper.
The scene that so struck me (pun intended) comes when Jimmy shivs Chopper. They’re talking and Jimmy casually swings his arm into Chopper’s chest. Chopper barely flinches, and comments that it’s early for that sort of kung fu. Jimmy charges him again and shivs him in the chest. Chopper barely misses a stride, barely responds, and barely changes his casual tone of voice. He looks at the two bloody wounds on his body like they belong to someone else and continues talking. He talks Jimmy through his decision as he is being repeatedly stabbed. Eventually he grabs Jimmy and slams him against a wall. He talks Jimmy down and sets him free. He tranquilly removes his shirt to reveal a plethora of gaping wounds, then lies down on the floor. Jimmy cradles his head and holds a cigarette to his lips. Then Jimmy calls the guards and cuts his own arm so he can claim what he did was self-defence.
It’s hard to imagine a simple stabbing scene could be so arresting, so unusual, so surprising. I’m going to have to spoil this illusion of a vacuum for a second to point out what immediately caught my attention in the moment – Andrew Dominik directs some of the least glamorized and exciting scenes of violence I have ever seen. Between this and the titular assassination in his second film, it’s hard not to see Dominik as someone who truly, truly, hates violence. And not in a James-Cameron-anti-war-film-filled-with-James-Cameron-wanking-to-the-violence-he’s-depicting kind of a way, but in an honest-to-god-it’s-unpleasant-to-watch kind of a way. It’s seems like a trite cliché, but I literally could not look away from the screen while this lengthy scene with the shiv unfolded. I leaned closer to the screen, my eyes widened (both of which were pretty redundant physical responses given I was watching it on a computer screen less than a foot away from me), and I became absolutely fixated. It’s definitely a hugely masterful scene, and from a filmmaking standpoint probably the highlight of the movie, at least for me.
Lets take a second to talk about Eric Bana, who sells this scene and the generally psychopathic underpinnings of his character, without ever seeming forced or campy. Like most truly effective depictions of unhinged characters, there’s a crisp precision to his performance. Each emotion is clear and distinct from the other, until they’re not. This creates a character that is legitimately hard to predict. His bursts of violence seem unexpected and threatening, and you start to get paranoid wondering what he’ll do next. Chopper’s not a smart character either; he’s a bit of a douche, and a little bit ignorant. He’s not very self-aware and constantly waging an internal war. I’m not entirely sure what convinced the real life Chopper to recommend Bana for the role, but it was a brilliant choice. It’s such a fabulous breakout role that it casts the rest of Bana’s career in a slightly sad light. Eric Bana is clearly immensely talented and, even if he requires more training or practice, he possesses brilliant capabilities that desperately need to be exploited.
The scene has pretty obvious ramifications later on too. As Chopper remarks earlier in the film: “Nothing’s ever forgotten Blue, that’s just human bloody nature.”
The movie cultivates a wonderfully paranoid (maybe Chopper’s seen footage?) tone, in part because of the heavy and overwhelming lighting. Andrew Dominik deliberately overwhelms different locations with certain colours, washing the scenes out and lending them a cloying quality. The colours are so omnipresent they start to make you rather uncomfortable as the film progresses. (Not to bring up Refn again in an article about Andrew Dominik, but the colour comparison deserves mentioning. Refn also employs colour-heavy overwhelming lighting for similar effect, proving the concept is applicable in multiple films, not just the already carefully crafted atmosphere of Chopper.)
The first really paranoid scene in the film comes when Chopper, freshly released from prison, takes his prostitute-sweetheart to a bar. The bar is filled with pressing bodies and lit with bright strobes and heavy-handed colours. It’s overpowering and nauseating, and the scene stretches on for an uncomfortably long time. This film really throws us into the uncomfortable mindset of its titular psychopath. At the club, Chopper runs into an acquaintance from his old days, someone he once shotgunned in the leg. He starts to get increasingly nervous, thinking this guy is going to take revenge on him, thinking he’s sleeping with his “girlfriend”, and thinking his girlfriend is sleeping with this other guy. His head snaps around every time he sees someone. He interrogates the man he crippled. He snaps at his lady friend before forcibly dragging her from the bar. As he leaves he turns and bellows at the crowd and the “cripple”, firing his gun several times. Not exactly firing it AT anyone, but it’s clearly not the behaviour of a healthy man.
So Chopper takes his companion to his car. He starts to calm down, and then realizes his feelings for this woman are going unrequited. He gets angry, demanding to know whom she’s sleeping with on her own time. She runs to her house. He knocks on the door and she doesn’t let him in. Eric Bana plays this scene so well, relying on what we’ve already seen of Chopper’s behaviour to lend it some serious tension. Chopper leaves the door, swearing and twitching, smashing up his car in anger before doing an about-face and heading back to the house. He smashes the door open, chasing the object of his affections upstairs. He beats her off-screen. It’s pretty chilling. Her mother even shows up part way through and Eric Bana essentially head-butts an old woman down a flight of stairs.
The scene is smart, if slightly more typical than the earlier shiv scene. Chopper chases his girlfriend into the bathroom, and we half see him in the doorway as his fist moves back and forth and we hear the sounds of fairly brutal blows. He comes to his senses after he head-butts the old woman. Well, he stops anyways. “Look what you made me do! You’re scaring your mum!” As he leaves, the camera gently glides over to show us the poor girl lying on the bathroom floor in the foetal position.
There are a few intriguing scenes with Chopper’s father scattered throughout the film, who he seems to be living with post-incarceration. The scenes, set inside a typical suburban house, still employ that nauseating colouring that keeps the audience on edge. Chopper’s dad seems like a normal guy, but there’s something chilling undermining these scenes. Chopper’s dad has no illusions about his son’s behaviour; he even seems to encourage them. “Your kindness will be the death of you,” he says, and it’s hard to tell if it’s a cold-hearted joke or if it’s meant to be taken at face value – he thinks his son isn’t hard enough.
Chopper seems to really care about seeming tough. Whether he denies taking a man he shoots to the hospital or admonishes the inmate cutting off his ears for working too gently, he seems deeply concerned about his public persona. One of the later scenes sees him being interviewed (for the interview from the beginning). The reporter offers to bring him a rough-cut of the shot but he turns down the offer saying, “Anything I say would be fiddling. I want to know what you think of me.” Apparently this is a verbatim exchange that Andrew Dominik had with the real Chopper; Dominik thought Chopper was faking his disinterest, and the movie reinforces this idea. “Anything I say would be fiddling,” Chopper says, and the movie cuts to him picking apart the news feed, alternatively complaining about the handling of the footage and praising his own responses. “I want to know what you think of me” is, according to Andrew Dominik, a complete lie. The question is whether or not Chopper believes his own response.
Chopper has another fit later in the movie. He goes to apologize to the man he crippled, and, upon seeing how well to do he is, asks him for money. The guy is pissed and Chopper grovels and apologizes, before shooting him in the gut and driving him to the hospital. He vehemently denies taking him to the hospital to anyone who asks. “You examine the motives behind the people saying these things.”
The people doing the examining? Police officers, apparently. Just like his real life counterpart, Chopper claims to be waging a war against criminals with a carte blanche in his pocket – courtesy of the police department. These scenes are strange, and, initially, heavily fragmented and context-free. As the film progresses, these scenes begin to include representations of Chopper’s warped, false, retellings of the film’s events, lending the entire plotline a decidedly unreal quality. This culminates in a rhyme directed straight to the audience, a shockingly surreal and false moment that seems to hint at the deeper delusions hiding behind the mind of Mark “Chopper” Read. This man’s view of reality may be every bit as false and brittle as his depiction of it.
Chopper’s copper (couldn’t resist) friends tell him about another price on his head. It’s supposedly going to be carried out by his childhood friend Jimmy Loughman. “Nothing’s ever forgotten…that’s just human bloody nature.” Chopper decides to pay his mate a visit. Incoming Refn comparison: Refn’s film Pusher has one of the more casually disturbing depictions of the slide into drug addiction I’ve seen. It’s barely a plot-point, just background texture, but it’s disturbing. For those of you who’ve seen it, the moment I’m thinking of takes place with the bride after her wedding. Chopper’s depiction is even more disturbing (Mark Read was vocally opposed to drug use). It’s a bit of a different beast; it’s far less casual, even though it’s still essentially background texture. Jimmy has become a full-on scabby user with a pregnant, still addicted, wife and a young child. Chopper is plainly disgusted by his friend’s descent into addiction. Chopper cocks a small pistol in front of Jimmy’s door before going in. Jimmy makes Chopper pass in his guns before entering. Chopper passes through to Jimmy two or three handguns and a shotgun –but not the gun we saw him cock.
The entire scene is fraught with tension, we know that gun is there, and we know Chopper thinks Jimmy is planning on killing him. “Is there anything you need to tell me?” Chopper repeatedly posits this question of Jimmy, calmly marking his reaction. He inevitably reaches his tipping point and draws his gun, mashing it into Jimmy’s face and raging at him. Jimmy starts sobbing, begging Chopper to not kill him in front of his wife and kid, then daring him to. Chopper, ever unpredictable, ends up hugging Jimmy and leaving. He gives him cash too, telling him to fix his home and fix his kids and forbidding him to spend it on drugs.
But this is not the last time we see Jimmy Loughman.
Chopper heads back out to the club. He starts drinking with a man who he previously suspected of hitting on his “girlfriend,” all the while mistrusting him. Actually the intro to this is pretty brief, but the mistrust is clear. The man goes by the name The Turk (as he did in real life too). The Turk leads him out back and Chopper points him towards his car. We don’t see his car, all we see is Chopper steer the man away from the light. All we really know is that Chopper mistrusts the man, and possibly thinks he’s a “nonce.” (Not a term actually used in the film, but I felt slipping in some British slang was appropriate.) Chopper pulls out his shotgun and, in another shockingly stark moment of violence, The Turk is fucking thrilled to see Chopper’s gun. He thinks Chopper is just showing off his hardware, and wants to know what kind of gun it is. Chopper shoots him in the head. He apologizes (as he seems wont to do after killing someone) as The Turk stumbles around clutching his head before eventually keeling over.
This leads us to the aforementioned, seemingly influential, use of time-lapse photography. The camera is positioned low, behind the corpse of The Turk. We see a days worth of bustle around the corpse: drunken spectators, police, police tape, photographers, and more. They all wander by and flicker in and out of the frame. It’s hard not to notice the stylistic similarities to several of the time-lapse effects Breaking Bad would later employ, especially during the show’s brilliant montages. Even the dramatically low angle was a common approach taken by Breaking Bad. I’m not accusing anyone of visual plagiarism or anything, Breaking Bad really had it’s own aesthetic and feel, but I wonder whether anyone involved in conceptualizing those sequences had seen this critical darling from Australia.
It’s this murder that Chopper retells twice. The first retelling sees The Turk attempt to shoot Chopper with Chopper’s own pistol. The Turk, not used to Chopper’s gun, doesn’t remove the safety, giving Chopper time to shotgun him. This retelling has a staged feel to it. Dominik cuts between Chopper acting out his story and a stiff, wooden, representation of it. Chopper is furious when the cops refuse to believe he murdered The Turk. He does eventually get arrested – it turns out Jimmy’s wife saw him shoot the Turk – and he tells the story of the court case and his realization about the crime. He figures that The Turk must’ve been tasked with leading Chopper to Jimmy, but led him into the wrong car park by mistake, sealing his fate. The representation of this scene has the cast reciting rhymes while staring at the camera, lit mainly by a spotlight. It’s as false and staged as the movie gets, and it’s fascinating.
We then meet back up with Chopper, in his cell, watching TV, just like the intro. (This is after seeing portions of the interview.) He’s excited by his appearance on TV, and seems to command some sort of camaraderie or respect from the two guards who watch with him. They leave when it ends, and the film pans out on the isolated Chopper before fading to black. It comes across as a little trite to me. It’s kind of a clichéd, obvious last note. That doesn’t invalidate it – it actually makes a ton of sense when you look at the thematic concerns of the movie. It’s essentially the final undermining of Chopper’s bluster. However it’s also EXACTLY how I expected it to end and, after the unexpectedly surreal rhyme and the phenomenally unique shiv attack, I was hoping Andrew Dominik would find one last way to surprise me.
Overall, it’s a forceful directorial debut, marked by a keen visual style, great script, and compelling lead performance. There’s little wrong with it, especially given that it’s Dominik’s first ever film. A few scenes are incredibly brilliant, and they stand out so much that other portions fall a little flat in comparison. That being said, the themes are complex and compelling, and the movie gets under your skin in a really powerful way. It’s a masterful little movie.