As popular as Chuck Palahniuk's cult novels are in literary circles, translating them for the big screen has posed problems for filmmakers. After 1999's Fight Club, Choke is only the second Palahniuk novel to make it to movie houses -- despite studio options on nearly every work he's penned.
As with other avant-garde writers like Kurt Vonnegutand Hunter S. Thompson, Palahniuk's vivid imaginings and warpedsensibilities are often easier pictured in the imagination than on celluloid. Director Clark Gregg, an actor who steps behind the lens here for his directorial debut, spent more than seven years toiling away before figuring out a way to adapt Choke. And so, we finally have the film adaptation rolling out in a limited release September 26.
For the non-Palahniuk enthusiast, here's the rundown: Sam Rockwell is Victor Mancini, a warped con artist with a sex addiction. Victor spends his days hanging with best pal Denny (Brad William Henke), working at the Colonial Williamsburg historical recreation park, and strolling sex addiction meetings for an easy score. Victor's mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), is living at a nursing home, which Victor funds by pretending to choke at restaurants in order to win the sympathy (and cash) of his rich saviors.
As Ida's condition worsens, Victor meets a Paige (Kelly Macdonald), a kindly nurse with some radical ideas about how to save Ida. Victor's life approaches rock bottom, but he may finally have found a way to climb out of his daily routine of complete self pity.
Clark Gregg is best known as a character actor in movies like Clear and Present Danger, Magnolia, and Iron Man. For his feature directorial debut, Gregg couldn't have chosen a much bigger challenge than adapting Palahniuk. Clearly Gregg was up for the task as nothing about Choke feels like the work of an inexperienced director. Combined with the inspired choice of Sam Rockwell (it's hard to imagine anyone else playing this role so adeptly), Gregg delivers an ambitious, worthy translation of Palahniuk'swords, one of the finest feature directorial debuts in recent memory.
Rockwell makes this movie. Reading Victor's escapades, it's often difficult to imagine this guy possessing the necessary charm to pull off his constant schemes. But Rockwell knows just the right buttons to push to manipulate the characters and the audience. Victor isn't a guy you'd want to know, but watching him is a sheer dirty pleasure.
Huston takes Palahniuk's rather thin description of the mother character along with Gregg's additional scripting and completely fleshes out Ida. She and Rockwell have an intense and believable chemistry, especially given that their mother-son moments are often built around scenarios where the delusional Ida seems to think Victor is someone else entirely.
Kelly Macdonald adds a warmth and beauty to Paige, both in terms of physicality and personality. She is the exact opposite of Victor, and almost everyone else in his life, which makes his attraction to her all the more logical. Brad William Henke takes the "buddy role" and fleshes it out to create something more. Denny has a lot of Victor's same problems, but like Paige he's got a good heart and is well-meaning. Victor might have a good heart, but if so he's thrown it in a room and locked the door long ago.
Choke is a smart, dark, sleazy breath of fresh air among so many pieces of repetitive, predictable cinematic drivel. Not to sound like a film snob, but a story with the least bit of originality or surprising moments these days is a rare find. Choke throws some surprises into the mix along with a strong story and great performances, perfecting this compelling bit of cinematic voyeurism. This is a look into the life of a man who you wouldn't necessarily want to know but can't deny the utter fascination of observing.