Directed by: Andrew Dominik [Chopper], David Michod [Rover] || Produced by: Michele Bennett [Chopper], Liz Watts, David Linde, David Michod [Rover]
Screenplay by: Andrew Dominik [Chopper], David Michod [Rover] || Starring: Eric Bana, Vince Colosimo, Simon Lyndon, Kate Beahan, David Field [Chopper], Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson [Rover]
Music by: Mick Harvey [Chopper], Antony Partos [Rover] || Cinematography: Geoffrey Hall, Kevin Hayward [Chopper], Natasha Braier [Rover] || Edited by: Ken Sallows [Chopper], Peter Sciberras [Rover] || Country: Australia || Language: English
Running Time: 94 minutes [Chopper], 102 minutes [Rover]
Australian cinema following World War II didn’t achieve international recognition until the nation’s equivalent to the French and American New Wave movements of the 1970s, along with the concurrent era of low-budget grindhouse cinema known as Ozploitation. Perhaps the first widely popular genre film of that period was rookie director George Miller’s Mad Max (1979), which also launched the careers of international star Mel Gibson and director of photography David Eggby.
Beyond the Mad Max films (1979, 1981, 1985, 2015) and the occasional cultural oddity (e.g. Crocodile Dundee ), modern Australian filmmaking is more familiar to international audiences with regards to their exported stars (e.g. Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Geoffrey Rush, Heath Ledger, Joel Edgerton, Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver, Jason Clarke, etc.) than homegrown feature-film productions.
Up and coming filmmakers Andrew Dominik and David Michod appeared determined to reverse that trend in the late 2000s to early 2010s, though their commercial and critical influence of late has been more questionable. The former’s sophomore effort, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, an American production) remains one of my favorite — and one of the few true quality — modern westerns, though no film of his since has broken into the mainstream or won much critical accolade. Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010) has left the most impact of either autuer’s singular works, garnering Jacki Weaver an Oscar nomination and inspiring an eponymous, ongoing American television series (2016-present).
However, the twin subjects of today’s review are not, in my assessment, the best examples of these writer-directors’ cinematic talents. Chopper is routinely touted as one of the better “underground” features of the Australian continent of the past twenty years, a cult following I frankly do not understand. As a breakout performance for lead Eric Bana, it works just fine, but as a cohesive narrative with a distinct visual style, it has as much flavor as a dry, unseasoned chicken breast. The film details the adult criminal life of one Mark “Chopper” Read (Bana), a notorious real-life Australian convict and probable sociopath, and is split into two halves that are more or less separate movies: Part I follows Bana’s violent scuffles in prison, which culminate in him cutting off his ears to seek medical attention and thus avoid assassination by rival prison gangs; Part II follows a newly released and much fatter Bana trying and failing to rehabilitate to civilian life, succumbing to his violent urges as former criminal associates turn on him.
If all the above sounds exciting in theory, believe me, it isn’t on-screen; this wasted crime drama is a true shame outside of Bana’s committed, charismatic performance, as Chopper’s two acts don’t gel and are both poorly edited, poorly paced, and lack narrative cause and effect. As a function of this weird structure, few scenes feel connected to each other, especially when comparing the film’s two acts as a whole, and most of the stakes of the criminal violence are therefore neutered. Dominik also refrains from notable visual style or auteur flairs, perhaps due to Chopper being his debut feature. He increases his camera’s shutter speed at one point to stylize a sequence of Bana under the influence, but it’s a pointless embellishment reflective of much of the film’s vapid, empty subject-matter.
There’s a bit more going on in Michod’s sophomore followup to Animal Kingdom, The Rover, starring lead man Guy Pearce and a striking character performance by Robert Pattinson. Unlike Chopper, which should’ve been rewritten from the ground up, The Rover shows narrative promise until you realize its story is going nowhere by its third act. I appreciate Michod’s acting direction and flair for blunt, impersonal violence (Pearce shooting various minor characters in the face never gets old), but the ultimate thematic point of his film is weak and its diegesis, its cinematic world, uninteresting. The Rover is ostensibly a “post-apocalyptic” or dystopian narrative taking place in the fallout of some unnamed global catastrophe, but this setting is never fleshed out a la Mad Max or Escape from New York (1981).
Even worse, The Rover, for all its memorable on-location photography and harsh, outdoor lighting, lacks emotional impact due to its dud of an ending, situating this film among the likes of Under the Skin (2013) and The Lobster (2015); it’s a feature-film whose script is unworthy of feature-status, boasting enough narrative detail to fill 10-15 minutes of screentime, and no more. As endearing as Pattinson’s development is with the always reliable Pearce, it wasn’t a journey worth 102 minutes. Michod is a good filmmaker, and his director of photography, Natasha Braier (see The Neon Demon ), makes great use of the production’s native Australian backdrop, but this underwhelming script wastes both their talents.
Perhaps that’s the best summary of these two films, Chopper and The Rover: They’re a waste of considerable cinematic talent, as evidenced by David Michod’s Animal Kingdom and Andrew Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse James. At this point in their careers, I doubt either will turn into another George Miller, but it’s a shame to watch obvious filmmaking strengths (e.g. good casts, great stars, promising cinematographers, otherwise intriguing source material) fall well short of their potential. In any case, I recommend keeping an eye on these directors’ future efforts, Australian productions or otherwise, if not on these particular films.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Chopper’s hackneyed, nonsensical story format dooms the film from the outset, though Andrew Dominik does little to heighten tension through camerawork or editing. The Rover has enough thematic depth to support a short film, but nowhere near enough for a feature presentation.
— However… Chopper established Eric Bana’s career for good reason, while The Rover makes great use of its desolate Australian Outback and a surprise performance from Robert Pattinson.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? You couldn’t come up with a better motivation than a dead canine in the back of a car?