USA/Cayman Islands 2008

Film still for Choke

Reviewed by Kate Stables


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

USA, present day. Victor Mancini works reluctantly as a historical re-enacter in Colonial Williamsburg. He indulges his sex addiction with passing women, and runs a choking scam in restaurants, conning money from the patrons who save his life to pay his ageing mother Ida's bills at a private mental hospital.

Ida no longer recognises him. Flashbacks show that she alternately abducted and abandoned him in childhood, due to her manic episodes. Ida lets slip that she has kept his father's true identity from him. Earnest young doctor Paige Marshall solicits sex from Victor, and proposes that illegal embryo therapy could benefit Ida. Drawn to her, Victor finds himself impotent. He discovers Ida's diary, written in Italian. Paige's translation reveals that Victor was born after an IVF experiment with a relic of holy foreskin. In love with Paige and stressed by his mother's worsening dementia, Victor becomes increasingly promiscuous. Paige tells Victor she loves him but he's unable to respond.

Victor tells the momentarily lucid Ida that he needs to break from her to be able to love Paige. She gives him her blessing. Convinced that he is the half-clone of Jesus, Victor comforts the hospital's demented old ladies and commits to a sex-addiction programme. Ida is moved to an end-stage ward, where she admits the truth to Victor - she stole him from a pram in Iowa. Shocked, he can't stop her choking to death on her pudding. Paige's attempts at resuscitation reveal her own patient ID - she is a med-school dropout committed after a psychotic episode, masquerading as a doctor. She invented the cloning story to help Victor. Victor is wrongly arrested for assaulting a demented old lady, but is released after confessing recent events to police. He chokes for real in the interrogation room, and defecates a lost anal bead. Paige goes missing. Victor has sex in an airplane toilet - his partner is Paige.


Chuck Palahniuk's transgressive fictions have become so identified with the moody 1990s nihilism of David Fincher's castration-anxiety classic Fight Club that it's a pleasant shock to find writer-director Clark Gregg's short, sly and enjoyably sleazy tale of sex addiction, scamming and 'senior care' mining Choke for wry laughs rather than millennial male anxieties. Which is not to say they aren't present: Victor Mancini's oedipal love-hate relationship with his demanding, demented mother Ida informs everything from his sex addiction and fear of intimacy to the restaurant-choking scam by which he pays for her pricey medical care. But Gregg's decision to play Palahniuk's blend of manic comedy and sour social commentary as an ironic, supra-real farce means that the crisis-of-masculinity themes sneak through this sardonic sex romp rather than knocking you upside the head, Fight Club-style. Rather like Victor's innumerable sexual episodes, this is a quick and dirty movie - it was shot in three weeks, and it looks like it - but Gregg's light touch and actor-led approach compensate in some measure for the rather everyday visuals and flashback-spattered structure.

Choke is very obviously built around Sam Rockwell's proven talentfor infusing duplicitous, sleazebag characters with audience appeal, and his rueful hangdog charm as Victor richly permeates the film, from the mocking voiceover ("What would Jesus not do?") to the blackly comic choking-scam set piece where he veers away from a Swatch-wearing Samaritan to seek a richer saviour. Fortunately Anjelica Huston as the imperiously fascinating and sharp-tongued Ida, and Brad William Henke's affable, incessantly self-abusing best friend Denny can punch at Rockwell's weight, which means their scenes with him have a subtlety beneath their comic surface, even occasional pathos. Huston's power in particular, in a mercurial performance as a bipolar parent that stretches over two time frames, is such that, despite a central love story, the movie emerges as much twisted 'momcom' as romcom.

This classier, risk-taking side evens up Gregg's tendency to counterbalance Choke's unwieldy plotting (Victor was conceived from a holy foreskin! Victor masquerades as characters from dementia patients' lives to give them closure!) with salacious gag-strewn shags or gross-out snippets (like the explosive return of a lost anal bead) that seem to have strayed in from a Farrelly brothers movie. Granted, a hilariously choreographed fake-rape which Victor stages for an over-controlling internet date hits the spot - but there's a fair amount of casual misogyny that isn't excused by the film's knowing, self-deprecating stance. Nor by the maker's decision to stir a sugary finale into Palahniuk's originally bitter brew, as Victor embraces a 12-step programme and the love of a good woman with a sincerity that sits oddly with the film's jaundiced portrayal of self-help culture. Maybe it's a sign of the times (sentimentality is the new irony - ask Judd Apatow) but Choke's ultimate capitulation to sweetness and salvation does stick in one's craw.


Directed by
Clark Gregg
Produced by
Beau Flynn
Tripp Vinson
Johnathan Dorfman
Temple Fennell
Written for the screen by
Clark Gregg
Based on the novel by
Chuck Palahniuk
Director of Photography
Tim Orr
Joe Klotz
Production Designer
Roshelle Berliner
Nathan Larson
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011