Starring Sam Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald, Anjelica Huston
Written and directed by Clark Gregg
Clark Gregg did it. I wouldn't recommend trying, but he did it. This is Chuck Palahniuk we're talking about, after all.
The creator of Fight Club.
The gross-out artist.
The guy who famously or infamously or anecdotally inspired multiple people to drop over in a dead faint at readings of a story about heinous masturbation-inspired mishaps.
That grotesque, pathetic, twisted guy.
But Clark Gregg did it. The "I know that guy from something somewhere" actor took Palahniuk's Choke as screenwriter and director and found another vein. Buried beneath the blasphemy and the bodily fluids and the self-loathing was a story about redemption.
Clark Gregg turned Chuck Palahniuk into a romantic.
Or maybe he just pulled back the covers to expose the romantic that was already there. It's certainly not easy to see at first in the tale of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), who's messed up in so many ways that it's hard to know where to begin.
He attends 12-step meetings for sex addiction with his best friend and compulsive masturbator Denny (Brad William Henke), but pretty much only so he can pick up women. He visits with his ailing mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), but her dementia has reached the point where she doesn't even recognize him. And while he has a job at a colonial theme park, he supplements his income by shoving food down his throat at restaurants, finding someone to save his life, and becoming the beneficiary of his newfound saviors' sense of connection.
There's plenty of dark comedy to be mined out of those situations, and Gregg certainly doesn't ignore it. He turns the back of Victor's quickie sex partner into a movie screen as he visualizes baseball and stern nuns in an effort to fend off orgasm. He turns Victor's seemingly random staggering through restaurant diners into a calculated effort to find just the right sugar daddy. And you can't help but head in bizarre directions when a plot twist involves a certain incarnate deity's preserved foreskin.
It's all anchored by Rockwell, who is becoming one of the most reliably terrific American actors most moviegoers couldn't pick out of a police lineup. Victor's actually a close cousin to the tragic screw-up Rockwell played in David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, only here he plays the same percolating misery with a wicked sense of humor. It's not easy to tap dance between blasphemous punch lines and Victor's angry refusal to accept that he could be anything but a complete sleazeball, but Rockwell pulls it off.
He also needs to negotiate Gregg's efforts to redeem Victor with genuine emotion — and that's no easy task. The tonal shifts are occasionally jarring, as Choke flashes back to Victor's childhood encounters with his mom, a self-styled political activist and refugee from custody who appears at odd intervals to steal Victor back from foster homes.
Victor's history turns him into someone who has no idea what emotionally healthy relationships of any kind look like, making his frustrated attempts to consummate his hookup with one of his mother's doctors (Kelly Macdonald) an almost poignant kind of lowbrow slapstick.
Sure, maybe "poignant lowbrow slapstick" doesn't exactly work all the time. While Choke earns both its laughs and its emotion, maybe the combination blunts a little bit of each; is it funny or just creepy that patients with dementia keep seeing Victor as the manifestation of whatever sexual trauma they've experienced?
But maybe it's compelling enough simply to see Gregg pull it off as effectively as he does, so that the kiss that closes the film becomes a startling bit of tenderness. Palahniuk's stark and bitter prose slithered into the chrysalis of movie development and emerged as something almost sort of beautiful.