Chuck Palahniuk has long been obsessed with bodily expulsions, an obsession that, arguably, the author explored to its furthest depths in one of his best novels, Choke. The fourth novel from the man who wrote Fight Club and Haunted is about all those things we push out of our body both physically and emotionally, whether it be through the Heimlich Maneuver, dirty sex on a bathroom floor, or coming to terms with the mental and physical decline of a loved one. It’s not an easy book. And there’s a reason you haven’t seen a Palahniuk movie between Fight Club and Choke. What he does on the page is not easy to translate to the big screen. To be frank, you usually wouldn’t want to see what’s on Chuck’s mind, and that makes actor Clark Gregg’s directorial debut all the more remarkable. In a very different way, Gregg “gets” Choke as much as David Fincher understood Fight Club. The two movies are drastically different experiences but, like Fincher, Gregg has taken a complex, challenging book and turned it into an intellectual, visceral gut-punch of a movie.
If Fight Club was about man’s propensity for violence, Choke is about man’s propensity for self-importance. We not only want to be the center of attention, we demand it with our mothers, lovers, colleagues, and friends. But it’s not as simple as ego. It’s about being and needing a savior and the roles men will play to reach that level. Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) will do anything to get the attention he so desperately needs. The two most blatant examples in his life are that Victor is both a sex addict and a guy who stuffs food down his throat at restaurants in the hope that someone will perform the Heimlich Maneuver to save him. Victor tries to spot the richest-looking guy in the room, knowing that they will sort of take him in and even send him money on birthdays and holidays if they think they saved his pathetic life. He needs to be saved and supported in a way that his mother (Anjelica Huston) never did. She was, well, crazy, bouncing around the country, kidnapping Victor from foster homes, and teaching him some pretty bad habits. Now, she’s slowly dying, trapped in an increasingly delusional state that has left her unable to even recognize her own son. He pretends to be her lawyer and other people just to get near her. Victor will be whomever he needs to be – nameless lover in a dirty stall, his mother’s lawyer, victim in a restaurant. Even his job as a colonial recreationist involves taking on another persona.
Of course, men who wear too many hats to get attention often find they’ve lost the sense of who they really are. Victor’s life starts to unravel when he realizes that his mother has a few secrets about the identity of his true father and, after he meets a sexy doctor (Kelly MacDonald) with a few unusual ideas about how to save mom, Victor starts to realize that he’s going to have to expel more than bodily fluids to come to terms with his mother’s impending death and how he will continue to go on after his most common savior is gone.
Sam Rockwell has long been one of the most interesting actors of his generation, and he’s having a stunning year in 2008. His work in the excellent Snow Angels and Choke are about as distinctly different as any two roles that any other actor has delivered this year. Rockwell brings together just the right mix of the cocky swagger that any sex addict would need to have with the copious insecurity of someone with serious mommy issues. And Huston does her best work in years in Choke. She basically plays two parts – the younger woman in flashbacks with a child Victor and the delirious woman on her deathbed – and she’s fantastic. However, the usually-terrific Rockwell and Huston both delivering knockout performances aren’t as much of a shock as how deftly Gregg handles his directorial debut. On the negative side, sometimes Choke feels a bit too light on its feet. It barely runs 90 minutes and I wished it had a little more “weight” to it. There are clearly serious themes going on here, and Gregg too often goes for the quick-paced black comedy. I wish he had taken his time a bit more, but it’s a minor complaint. What is here works very well. Like a quickie in a bathroom or a Heimlich to the gut, Choke gets in, gets out, and gets the job done.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: September 26, 2008
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kelly MacDonald, Anjelica Huston, and Clark Gregg
Director: Clark Gregg
Writer: Clark Gregg