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Melbourne Classics: Chopper

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Melburnians are fascinated by gangland culture. From tabloid stories on the Carl Williams saga to television series like Underbelly, it seems we can’t get enough of the criminal underworld that operates right under our nose. Perhaps it’s the elusive lifestyle of luxury, or the notion of invincibility, that has made criminals like Mark ‘Chopper’ Read so notorious.

Director Andrew Dominik seeks to uncover the enigmatic nature of this notorious underworld figure in Chopper (2000). Inspired by Read’s autobiography, From the Inside, the film is a fictional dramatisation of Read’s criminal life.

It begins with Chopper’s incarceration in Pentridge Prison– the notorious jail that has since been demolished to make way for an apartment complex. Inside these blue prison walls, friendships are complicated to say the least. Chopper stabs fellow inmate Keithy (David Field), apologising profusely for the inconvenience as he bleeds to death on the floor. Chopper then miraculously survives a murder attempt by cellmates Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) and Bluey Barnes (Dan Wyllie) – a botched job that Chopper jokes about as he’s dragged away on a stretcher. Later, in a bid to get moved to a better cell, Chopper cuts off his ears without flinching.

Once released, Chopper leaps straight back into the life of crime he has become famous for. With his casual girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beahan) he indulges in drugs, dealings and death. Through their eyes we witness the seedy side of Melbourne: dimly-lit alleyways, empty car parks and housing commission flats – an underworld in which everything is for sale.

After shooting dead his enemy Sam the Turk (Serge Liistro) outside infamous St. Kilda nightclub Bojangles, Chopper winds up in jail yet again and attains the media attention he so desperately craves.

At first glance, Chopper sounds like a film that’s tough as guts. Yet despite its relentless violence, the film emits a light-hearted, almost comedic tone. This can be attributed to Chopper’s bizarre persona: his violent ethos is underscored by good manners as he, at times, appears to genuinely care for the undesirables he associates with.

Chopper is a film in which the lines between good and evil are blurred, as it examines the perverse morality of Melbourne’s underworld and the strange relationships that are forged in exceptional circumstances. It details the cult-like status that society ascribes to gangland figures, the lives that are destroyed in their wake, and the media circus that inevitably follows.


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