Trysts and All
It takes two to tangle everything in Choke
by Molly Templeton
CHOKE: Written and directed by Clark Gregg. Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Cinematography, Tim Orr. Music, Nathan Larson. Editor, Joe Klotz. Starring Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke and Jonah Bobo. Fox Searchlight, 2008. R. 92 minutes.
Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a fuckup. He’s a ne’er-do-well of a very particular sort; one facet of his complicated bio could, for a lesser character, serve as a summary. But Victor isn’t just a sex addict with a crazy mother, a job in a historical reenactment village and a penchant for choking on his food in restaurants for sympathy (and for the checks his impromptu saviors might send him later); he’s more than the sum of his parts. And, oddly, despite all those quirks, he seems … pretty normal. Either that, or everyone is crazy.
Choke is based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, who while he was working on it said, “I figured if I could write a dark comedy about violence, I could write a really dark comedy about sex.” In the hands of director Clark Gregg, who also adapted the novel and appears as a tightly wound, historically garbed colleague of Victor’s, it’s dark, but not Fight Club dark, and where David Fincher’s Fight Club adaptation had style to spare, Choke is a plainer, sweeter (though still plenty dirty) film. Victor is a mess; he lives in a dump, and most of his shirts appear to have something spilled on them. His best friend, Denny, is a compulsive masturbator who’s just as schlumpy as he is. The driving force in Victor’s life is his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), who always thinks Victor is someone else when he visits her. (She likes to complain to whoever she thinks he is about how her son never comes to visit.) The hospital where Ida lives is full of women who accuse Victor of all sorts of crimes against them — and employees with whom Victor has had trysts. You could accuse Choke of being slightly unrealistic in terms of the number of women willing to sleep with this man, but you could also consider that in the world of Choke, everybody’s just a little needier and less filtered, which makes them game for connection in whatever form it takes.
Victor’s neediness is pretty clear: He likes being a baby in the arms of those who save him from choking, and though he claims the sex is all about the moment where he forgets everything, it’s not that simple. Nothing is: not his parentage; not his friendship with Denny, which hits a bump when Denny meets a stripper he really, really likes; not his bizarre childhood, seen in a series of flashbacks with batty Ida; and certainly not his potential relationship with Paige (Kelly Macdonald), his mother’s doctor, a sweet-faced, unusually calm, warm woman with whom Victor, tragically, cannot perform. Choke doles out the information (and the humor) in each of these situations carefully, fitting a complicated tangle of relationships into a compact film that never drags but never roars, either. It moves along on the biting humor (this is a Palahniuk story, so laughter and a certain kind of awed horror arrive in tandem) and the strength of the performances. Sam Rockwell still needs that role that’ll move him beyond being a “you know, that guy” familiar face; he’s had great parts in everything from Galaxy Quest and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but none of those were quite star-making material. Choke isn’t either — but Rockwell’s fast-talking, desperate, hapless, hopeful Victor, with his delicate balance of vulnerability and detachment, comes close.
Choke opens Friday, Sept. 26, at the Bijou.