Choke sets out from frame one to stake a claim as the most vile, seedy, morally bankrupt movie of the year. It succeeds, and it’s all the better for it. The film, based on a novel by “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of a man named Victor, who can only be described as human waste. He’s played by Sam Rockwell, in whose hands Victor comes off as a 70s porn star, born two decades too late. He’s a sex addict and he screws every woman he encounters, usually doggy style in dirty bathrooms, though just about anywhere and in any position will do.
Victor’s professional life is spent as a historical era reenacter, and every day he puts on his ridiculous costume and walks into 1742. He’s not particularly interested in shoveling hay for the benefit of his customers, and instead spends most of his time slacking off or sexually harassing the women he works with. To make extra money outside of work, he intentionally chokes himself in restaurants, and then hits up whoever rescues him for money. Victor has learned that when someone saves your life, suddenly they feel responsible for you. And so he works an ever expanding mailing list of former life savers, whom he feeds sob stories which in turn convince them to send checks.
Yet there’s more to Victor than the sleezy, sex-obsessed con artist he thinks of himself as. Don’t get me wrong, he is a scumbag, but he’s more complex than that. His choking scam for instance, isn’t his ticket to the good life. The money he earns from his self-choking is used to take care of his mother (Anjelica Huston). When he’s not engaging in sex, booze, or some scam, Victor hangs out at the nursing home with his elderly mother. What kind of man treats himself and everyone around him like garbage, yet still takes time to hang out at his mom’s nursing home, even though she never recognizes him? Clark Gregg’s script is devoted to unraveling him.
That’s not to say that Choke attempts to excuse Victor or for that matter even really redeem him. That’s part of the movie’s genius really. Any other film about a man this despicable would normally clean him up by the end. This isn’t that film. Choke doesn’t try to change Victor as much as it tries to understand him, and for that matter allow him to understand himself. By the time it’s over, he meets a woman and learns to sort of care about someone, but ultimately he’s still kind of a piece of shit. The difference in him is more about understanding who and what he is. He’s a piece of shit, but a piece of shit who knows his place in the world and has perhaps, found happiness in it.
Even though Choke resists the temptation to turn Victor into a saint (though it has a lot of fun playing around with that notion), sometimes it does feel like it’s reaching for something bigger than it should be. It’s as if writer/director Clark Gregg thinks there’s some grand statement about life and humanity buried and his movie, when there really isn’t. Victor’s world and Sam Rockwell’s performance work best when the film sticks with lewd and lascivious… which is my way of saying there’s plenty of boobies. Deep conversations about relationships are had during handjobs and true love is uncovered while trying to convince a stripper she has cancer. It’s the film’s seediest moments that seem the most real and when Gregg uses those to expose the foolishness of crude sentimentality, when Victor’s life is at its most despicable and unstable, that’s when Choke truly shines.
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