Release Date: September 26
Director: Clark Gregg
Writer: Clark Gregg, Chuck Palahniuk
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica
Huston, Kelly Macdonald
Studio/Run Time: Fox Searchlight/89
The thought provoking and profane converge in Chuck Palahniuk’s second inspired film
It doesn’t require much brainpower to
underestimate the work of Chuck Palahniuk. As an author who deals in
the unromantic boundaries of human failure, shock value and
exploitation have been tightly tethered to his characters and their
plunge into deviant extremes. The molecular detail the writer applies
to his gallery of rabies victims (Rant), cult members (Survivor),
blow up dolls (Haunted) and, in this specific case, sex addicts, is
just as captivating as it is disturbing. And as a man who knows that
rare crux where disgust and fascination fuse together, Palahniuk deserves respect for being more interested in showing us
why we’re repelled more than what’s literally repelling us.
Translating such heady prose and
controversy into an hour and a half of condensed film presents more
risks than benefits. The abrasive violence of Palahniuk’s first
cinematic experiment, Fight Club, polarized its viewers and became a
cult phenomenon to a devoted minority. If mainstream America is less
tolerant of sex than violence, then the second film inspired by
Palahniuk’s work, Choke, has its work cut out for itself.
Brought to the screen with stringent
loyalty by debut director Clark Gregg, Choke stars Sam Rockwell as
Victor Mancini, a med school dropout who avoids life through casual
sex binging and feigning dysphagia (i.e. choking) at public
restaurants. Mancini’s fake trauma alarms eager passerbys who
perform the Heimlich and, afterwards, support him with a steady
stream of cash, playing heroes to his perpetual victim. To Mancini,
the boundary between savior and saved is ambiguous: he saves their
self-esteem and they save his rent.
Choke operates beautifully as an
iteration of Palahniuk’s canon. Gregg completely retains the
author’s voice, explaining these cynical failures as they search
for a reason to rationalize their rehabilitation in a chorus of
hilarious voice over. Those expecting a spiritual successor to the
kinetic action of Fight Club might be disappointed, though.
While Fight Club consisted of chiseled
metaphors beating each other with operatic symbolism, Choke preaches
to the masses from a quiet eye-level view, which serves the story
more appropriately. In Palahniuk’s world, there are no heroes or fourth walls, just humanity in all of its flawed glory. His protagonists
are represented by reality’s cache of addicts, delinquents and
losers, all beautifully projected in 3-dimensional honesty. The
production’s grounded approach completely respects this ideal, but
that’s not to say the transition is flawless.
These characters are idiosyncratic to
an extreme that literature can support more easily than film.
Watching psychiatric doctor Paige (Kelly Macdonald) explain to Victor
that he’s probably the descendant of Christ is harder to digest
when you actually hear the words rather than read them in a paragraph
full of witty asides. And like the Harry Potter screenwriters, Gregg
indiscriminately packs in as much from the book as chronologically
possible. These plot threads range from the subtle to the
overwhelming, and the relationships feel neglected to compete with
the novel’s scale.
Fortunately, Sam Rockwell embodies his
paper and ink inspiration perfectly. If his previous roles weren’t
any indication, Rockwell easily assumes the ticks and humor of his
characters with convincing subtlety. Watching him attempt to seduce
a fellow addict in a twisted role-playing game plays out like Abbott
and Costello’s “Who’s On First” gag with a safe word. The
other performances aren’t quite as even, as Macdonald
expressionlessly site reads her lines and Angelica Huston looks far
too fresh to play Mancini’s mentally ill mother.
Like its antihero, Choke’s execution
isn’t perfect, but well worth watching. The fine line between
provocative and hilarious blurs to an entertaining extreme that’s
just as certain to make you laugh as squirm. If you’re not
intimidated by the profane or controversial, Choke goes down easy.
Watch the trailer for Choke: