What is Choke? It’s hard to say, really. It’s hardly a comprehensible film, nor is it an adequately told story. The only way I can hope to describe it, is to say that it is an insane tale filled with deviant behavior, and extreme insensitivity to conventional “normalcy”. The film braces itself with so many vulgar images and situations, it’s hard to know how they were able to fit in the plot. But the plot does fit, and it’s just crazy enough to be brilliant, and just demented enough to be utterly unforgettable.
The film is based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the same guy who wrote the novel that would later become the cult film Fight Club. He has shown himself to be a master of unsocial and downright sad characters, and with Choke, he continues his trend of telling the stories of those people’s fall off the deep end. But enough about Palahniuk, the film was written and directed by Clark Gregg, an accomplished actor himself, and his regurgitation of Palahniuk’s twisted world view is so spot-on and so repulsive, it leads to a film that is as enticing as it is dirty.
The story follows Vincent Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex addict whose cravings are so strong that he finds himself in severe sexual encounters even in the middle of his group therapy meetings. He has one close friend, Denny (Brian William Henke), and he is a chronic masterbater. The two work within one of those Colonial America theme parks, where the rules for employees are so harsh, that one cannot take off their 18th century wig or read today’s newspaper without a warning of getting fired.
The only part of Victor’s life that is remotely acceptable is his routine visits to his mother Ida (Angelica Houston), who lives in a special treatment hospital, because she suffers from severe dementia. Ida never knows who Vincent is, always confusing him with some lawyer named “Fred” or “Artie”. Vincent works for the sole purpose of paying his mother’s hospital bills, but she only continues to get worse. Among other schemes Vincent performs to get money, he goes to restaurants, swallows large amounts of food in order to make himself choke, and prays someone wealthy will rescue him. He finds that most people who save someone’s life feel responsible, and will often give out cash.
Life begins to turn for Victor when he meets his mother’s new doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald). She wants dearly to help Ida, because she has grown very close to her, and Victor wants very dearly to get into Paige’s pants. The relationship between the two makes up a large portion of the film. Perhaps, Victor can put his scoundrel days behind him, and finally settle with this night girl, but many obstacles befall him, including subplots dealing with rape-accusing senior citizens and Jesus’s foreskin. Yeah, that Jesus.
It’s not that Choke is in anyway offensive. As a matter of fact, given the subject matter, and the personality of characters, I found it to be rather tame. It’s the way the characters express themselves, and their rascal actions that has the most effect on the audience. Most acts are hidden with tricky camera placement and smart editing, but the effect is much more damning, and a hundred times more cerebral. Gregg (who also appears as an actor, playing Vincent and Denny’s boss) does such a wonderful job balancing this sick thinking, that you actually side with Vincent throughout the movie, despite his incredulity.
Sam Rockwell is someone who has been “destined for stardom” for the last decade and a half. Perhaps that ship has sailed, but he is an actor that is perfect for Victor. Rockwell has a quality that is moderately unattractive, yet is still charming enough to be engaging. He has been a substantial supporting player for years, and now he is given the reigns to carry a picture entirely on his shoulders. The disheveled hair and biting sarcasm, all add to a cataclysm of a character, whose primary past time is performance rape and anal beads. Victor is a man who hides his sadness behind sex, and wishes life were lived in a total state of orgasm. Only Rockwell could make that character a human being.
Every Palahniuk novel has the inevitable plot twist. They’re not meant to blow your mind (ahem.. M. Night Shyamalan), but they are usually nurtured on by the events in the story. The one in Choke does seem a little tacked on, and throws the film into a startling direction. The denouement saves it, by cutting off abrubtly before things become to insane to manage. Many may see Choke as a nihilistic middle finger to mainstream Hollywood, and so be it. I enjoy the way Clark Gregg adapted the material at face value, and never hesitated to push the level of discomfort even higher. Conservative minds may be thrown off, but that is not this film’s demographic. Its a film for those willing to admit that even they are a little messed up inside.
Written for the Screen and Directed by Clark Gregg