written and directed by Clark Gregg
based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
starring Sam Rockwell, Kelly MacDonald, Anglica Huston, Paz de la Huerta, Jonah Bobo, Gillian Jacobs, Brad William Henke
Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Choke is the rarest of cinematic wonders. It is a film that manages to be uproariously funny while maintaining a profound sadness that permeates every frame of the film. Truly its both one of the funniest and saddest films I’ve encountered in many years. Much of this has to do with the superb performance by Sam Rockwell.
Victor Mancini (Rockwell) nails a whole lot of women. The trails of his dedication are scattered all over town as he leaves them where he finds them only panting a whole lot harder and oozing from secret places they will soon scour. These encounters do not salve him although he does make a comment right at the beginning that the worst blow job is still better than the most beautiful bouquet of flowers. Or maybe it was a sunset. What matters is that Victor enjoys his experiences and can never quite contain himself until the next one. He attends Sex anonymous sessions and spends them screwing a fellow addict named Nico. His mother Ida (Huston) seems to be losing her mind and Victor has placed her in an expensive home where they have three possible floors that a patient can travel to on their journey. Nobody comes back from the third floor.
The film focuses quite a bit of attention on young Victor (Bobo) and his tortured relationship with his mother. They seem to have a game where Victor attracts young potential foster moms and then escapes with Ida at the last minute. Ida is something of a domestic terrorist and her entire approach to life is anarchic. Victor grows up both horrified of her and fascinated by her. It’s clear that he desires nothing more than to be a normal kid but Ida denies him every opportunity to do so. She hauls him about and he’s left confused and lonely with nobody to ask for guidance. These scenes are heartbreaking because the film captures such anguish on young Victor’s face. He looks lost and trapped in a world that he simply did not choose and she is forcing him to respond in a most specific manner to the stimulus she is presenting him. In some ways she is doing him a service by making him face his fears but she isn’t providing the care and attention that mothers are supposed to do for their children.
Some of the sex scenes are played up for big laughs. Victor meets a nurse named Paige Marshall (MacDonald) who helps him deal with anxiety over never having learned the identity of his father. This leads Paige to present vital information that stimulates Victor’s imagination. Again, the scenes between adult Victor and his mother are devastating and handled with excruciating delicacy. In these scenes one gets a clear picture of how Victor is haunted by a lack from his past. The film doesn’t go so far as to suggest that he fills the void with saucy, cheeky chicks with handsome thighs and a deeply imbedded lust but the possibility is certainly present. Still, the sex is hot and Victor seems to be having a helluva time getting it on in every scene except the ones where he is unable to perform. The great sex beast finds himself in an awkward position that belies his reputation and leaves him embarrassed and frustrated.
Victor’s friend Denny is a chronic masturbator who seems to have approached the record for most turns in a single day. He collects stones for every days “sober” and meets a hot stripper named Beth who seems a bit dippy and doesn’t say a whole lot once Denny beds her and convinces her to move in with him. She helps him in the stone garden but otherwise seems hardly to exist. She’s the domesticated dissolute who carries with her a semblance of a life that has kicked her along the tracks. Still, she appears to possess a moral compass and keen insight into biblical truth. Her gyrations are agonizing and anguished and hardly stimulating: they speak to a cold desperation that encompasses the entirety of the film. Normalcy, getting through to the point where you literally settle down within your Self, is treated here like an ideal state worthy of all the pain one must endure to establish it. Victor seeks it in every tryst, every penetration, and always comes away with nothing save a few brief moments of ecstasy. Still, these moments sustain him until the next time where he realizes the same bright epiphany that quickly fades and so the cycle continues.
But Victor needs much more than to be subjected to the sad tales of sexual freaks who get off on hearing each other’s tales of excess and primitive wailings. He has already gone through the nurses at the home his Mother lives at. It’s when he discovers a possible explanation for his origins that things get mighty weird. He’s elevated somehow, brought into a rarified state of being that afflicts a certain population that surround him and appear to treat him as something legitimately holy. Victor plays the role a bit and quickly discard it because it really isn’t his style. The title of the film and book comes from Victor’s happy little trick of pretending to choke in places where he hopes to be rescued by someone with money who will continue to support him long after they have “saved” his life. There’s a funny/sad scene where Victor describes the sensations involved in performing this particular act. It ends with Victor’s head cradled in the arms of the savior and Victor says that at that moment he is a child in their arms. The scene takes on a terrible poignancy as one learns about Victor’s identity crisis and his longing to find out more about where he came from.
Victor’s relationship with Paige is strange, hilarious and fraught with longing and perversity. He tries to fornicate with her but fails and he explains his failure by saying that he cannot perform because he likes her. For the first time in quite some time he’s able to have feelings for someone other than his mother yet he is unable to fully express them which creates another simple and horrible situation for Paige. At the core of this film is the painful and excruciating search for love in a world that is essentially indifferent if not downright hostile to such a basic human emotion. Victor is a character capable of immense love which he’s slowly dissipated with careless encounters with women he cannot possibly develop any feelings for. He tries to kiss Nico and she brushes him aside. He is left with the only salvation that makes any sense and it quickly becomes apparent that he must continue to maintain the high that originates with each contact. Eventually, he comes to something of a crossroads and decides to take steps up the ladder away from that initial bogeyman that haunts him and forces him to behave in a most specific manner.
There is something about the emptiness of easy, anonymous sex in this film but there is also aspects of the thrill of it all. It certainly is framed as something that is terribly exciting and worth doing. Victor never seems to be experiencing any guilt or any other messy emotions. He’s simply waiting for the next time where it will also be as good as he expects. To Victor it’s an experience that never fails him. He assumes he can do it forever until his actual emotions do manage to step in his path and he’s unable to push through them. He’s still promiscuous but suddenly there are other possibilities to consider even if he fails to heed them most of the time.
Victor’s life seems to be all about games. He plays at choking, plays at intimacy in the guise of instant gratification encounters, and plays the role of a number of characters with his mother who nearly always mistakes him for someone else. There’s a moment late in the film that is as brutal as anything I’ve seen in a film this year. It underlines the relationship that Victor has suffered with his mother and says everything about his fears and struggle to reach her.
The performances in this film are all outstanding and the actors are perfectly cast for their roles. Sam Rockwell is cool, dynamic and its easy to believe that every woman he meets finds him instantly irresistible. He’s got the swagger, the ease of being, and the carefree posture that suggests a man who just doesn’t care one way or another. Rockwell plays Victor as a deeply wounded character who is seeking redemption in a world that hardly offers many attractive methods for achieving such a state. Redemption in this film is self-willed. Rockwell gives us a character of tender complexity who realizes his flaws and embraces them without rushing to judgement regarding their merits or liabilities. Kelly MacDonald is equally tortured as the film progresses only its exceedingly subtle and difficult to read on her face. Nevertheless, MacDonald gives us tiny clues that can readily be accumulated so that her character comes sharply into focus. MacDonald has an easy manner which is complicated by her stark, direct readings. Her character is very calculated and exacting. There is a formality that tears the heart in two. Brad William Henke is relatively carefree in this film and pretty much outside of the fundamental drama that engulfs the other primary characters. Denny is certainly damaged as the film opens but he finds his bliss quickly and settles into it. He’s not particularly complicated and expects very little out of life. Henke conveys Denny’s basic openness to life and ability to go with whatever happens.
Overall, this film captures a depth of emotion rarely seen in cinema. This is a difficult film to analyze because it’s so condensed. It’s also profoundly tortured by emotional ties that threaten to strangle the characters as they attempt to make sense of the perils of reaching a state of grace. There is a tremendous sadness about these relationships as well as images of loss that resonate long after the film has reached its conclusion. Chuck Palahniuk’s text has been well treated in this film and through voice over narration is used expertly to help the narrative along. There is a stumbling toward a legitimate ecstasy that is hard won and equally difficult to maintain. The performances all bring a certain centeredness to the film and a strong sense of space and posture. Again, it’s a heartbreaking film that wrings great laughter out of absurdities that are more pronounced due to the underlying severity of the script.