Australian Mark Brandon Read, also known as Chopper (Eric Bana) spends time in prison for violent crime in the 70's and early 80's, and when he is released, he finds it difficult to live a life that doesn't feature an abundance of violence.
Based on a true story, this is writer/director Andrew Dominik's brutal character study of a man who is driven to attack people out of frustration and out of misplaced social responsibility. At the centre of the film is stand up comedian Eric Bana's superb performance, which is by turns threatening and humorous.
The story is told in a matter-of-fact fashion, and everything is kept low key for the most part, with colour filters on almost every shot. But Dominik keeps the tension strong because you find yourself simply waiting for the next time Chopper will launch himself at his next victim. Dominik also uses little tricks like the strobe lighting in the bar, or occasionally speeding up film to sustain the ominous atmosphere.
It's not all grim, though, the film also works as a black comedy. Chopper can't help being violent, and can be very apologetic after stabbing someone in the neck, or shooting someone in the head. And he's prone to be philosophical about his life to anyone who will listen. There are some good jokes, too, as when his father insensitively toasts him with "Cheers, big ears!" (Chopper has had part of his ears cut off in prison), or when a jealous Chopper asks his prostitute girlfriend who she's been sleeping with, and she replies, not unreasonably, "Everyone - I work in a brothel."
In the end, Chopper is back in prison, yet has become a media celebrity by writing books about his exploits. The film seems bemused that this character, who has done nothing with his life but cause trouble, should receive so much respect and even affection. While it doesn't share in this hero worship, it does give a rounded view of the man, suggesting even that he deserves pity.
Is the key to Chopper's character his father? He only appears in two scenes, firstly winding Chopper up, and secondly praising him for a car park shooting. Is his father the reason Chopper ends up the way he does? Is he overcompensating? And... why do the people in the film let him into their houses, anyway?