Nearly twenty years ago, Australian cinema threw up a prison masterpiece inspired by the bestselling memoirs of legendary murderer Mark Brandon, “Chopper” Read. A terrifying, if rather charming chap, well over six feet, covered in prison tattoos and noticeably lacking in ears, Read delighted in his jailhouse celebrity well before he was a famous writer. Chopper still allegedly holds the record for most shoplifted books out of any writer on Earth, something the old rattlesnake often boasted about, and, whether in heaven or hell now, surely he is still a source of great amusement. The literary writer William Gibson called him “the most terrifying man on Earth.”

And not without good cause: Old Chop Chop, whilst having only a prison yard education, could turn a phrase, his prose skills were occasionally excellent, and he was not a bad poet when he felt like putting in the effort. He made his cash by dismembering drug dealers and his full death tally will never be known.

Writer/Director Andrew Dominik, who never made another box office hit again, but whose later movies the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing them Softly were quiet masterpieces despite their indifferent commercial success, crafts Chopper like a game of Chess. It’s the only film he made with a recognisable sense of humour.

“Mark,” he confided on the DVD commentary, “is always using your imagination against you.”

The reality remains that if he had not done a good job with the movie, Dominik would have ended up in a shallow grave. Luckily for all concerned, he does not put a foot wrong, knowing full well the risks involved. Possibly his stroke of genius was to cast Aussie stand-up comedian Eric Bana as Chopper, and in doing so, directed Bana to international acclaim and the only legendary performance of his career to date. Bana had to put on several stone to play the role, eating when he wasn’t hungry, and immersing himself so fully in the role that the director sometimes found it difficult to tell the difference between the character and the actor. In many ways it’s one of the finest performances in Australian cinema history, never caricature, never fake, never over the top, as carefully constructed as Dominik’s shot construction and ingenious, understated writing.

Like Reservoir Dogs, Chopper was passed over completely by the Oscars (more of a compliment nowadays) but won three AFI Awards including Best Director and Best Actor, and this set Bana up for a tenure in Hollywood. With the money thrown at him, he, like all upstarts, made mistakes, like the appalling Hulk and The Other Boleyn Girl (as Henry VIII) and has yet to (and probably won’t) live up to the promise in America. Dominik has made the mistake of going the arthouse route and none of his films have made any real profit barely scraping by or losing money. But he is a careful and important filmmaker, the best Australian director of the 21st century by a country mile.

On Mark Brandon Read’s DVD commentary it’s clear he’s thrilled by the movie, but with all the ghosts floating around him and the reckoning he knows he must face, one of the final statements he makes, smoking his hundredth fag, he muses:

“They got the truth.”

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction