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Perfectly composed and diplomatic, even as he's bleeding small rivers through open knife wounds to his chest and stomach, Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read negotiates with his friend and assailant, pained only by the unexpected act of betrayal. Read says he understands his friend's anger, and apologizes for his transgressions, but pleads matter-of-factly, "If you keep stabbing me, you're going to kill me." As this bravura scene unfolds in Chopper, a witty and startlingly audacious debut by writer-director Andrew Dominik, there's no reassuring wink to tell the audience that it's just a fantasy. In fact, the famed Australian sociopath really was stabbed by his prison cellmate, and, as the story goes, was spotted doing push-ups in the infirmary shortly afterwards, readying himself for revenge. But rather than sticking with the tired conventions of a standard biopic, Dominik filters these shocking incidents through Read's self-inflating memory, so real events become distorted to heightened unreality, until the truth appears more like a tall tale. Based on a series of best-selling books by Read himself—each with tabloid subtitles such as How To Shoot Friends And Influence People and No Tears For A Tough GuyChopper uses its ingenious conceit to examine the relationship between the man and his own legend. Played with disarming charisma by stand-up comedian Eric Bana, Read boasts of killing 19 people in jail or on the streets, all of them drug dealers, thieves, or other lowlifes. His story is framed by an exclusive 1991 prison-yard interview with a local TV news reporter, where he recounts his most celebrated exploits with sly humor and braggadocio. (Further blurring the lines separating fact, fiction, and self-aggrandizement, Read himself supplies one of the DVD version's two audio commentaries.) The first section flashes back to 1978, when Read was held in Pentridge Prison's maximum-security wing, which was so notoriously brutal that he had his ears cut off to get out. His hair-trigger temper leads him to stab a gang tough (David Field) in the throat, but in a theme that would repeat itself later, he convinces a jury that it was an act of self-defense. The second section takes place after his release in 1986, when he was again acquitted on the seemingly indefensible charge of shooting a man at point-blank range in a nightclub parking lot. Chopper has been compared to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, another study of violent psychopaths who manipulate the media and revel in their own celebrity. But Dominik is subtler in his effects and not nearly as exploitative, despite his boldly unorthodox approach to a true story. On the force of Bana's galvanizing performance, Chopper ventures deeper and deeper inside the criminal mind until there's no way out.


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