ChokeWritten and directed by Clark GreggStarring Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Brad William Henke and Kelly MacdonaldRated R*7.5*
Goes well with: Withnail and I, Fight Club, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Making your first film is challenging enough. But writing and directing a movie about a sex addict who intentionally chokes on food in restaurants to engender sympathy and make money—to keep up with the nursing home bills where his insane mother suffers from dementia, and where he learns that he might actually be cloned from stem cells from the foreskin of Jesus Christ? Well, that's something else entirely. Oh, and add to the mix the fact that you're adapting a sick and twisted novel that's fiercely beloved by hordes of adoring fans, from an author who'd already had an adaptation turned into a film, and commercially and critically successfully so.
But that's the project first-time director Clark Gregg took on with Choke, taken from Chuck Palahniuk's 2002 novel.
Not only does the film succeed, creating an entirely sympathetic anti-hero in Victor Mancini, but also, Sam Rockwell finally gets the role he was born to play, and he knocks it out of the park.
Of course, anyone adapting Palahniuk for the screen does it in the shadow of Fight Club. Gregg, probably best known for his role on The New Adventures of Old Christine and his recent appearance as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Iron Man, says it took some time before he thought he got it right.
“It took a long time to crack the adaptation,” he says, “six or seven years from the time I first got hold of the book. I had to do other jobs, and then I'd come back to it.”
It was actually only with Palahniuk's advice—which was, basically, not to listen to Palahniuk—that Gregg finally nailed the script.
“He's very hands-off,” he says. “He gave me a lot of room. I called him and I told him my take on what the thing is, that it's this punk romantic comedy at its heart. And he said, ‘That's exactly right. Go write that. Just don't be too faithful to the book.' Of course, I didn't listen to him, but he knew that unless it stopped being a book and started being a movie, it wouldn't work.”
The finished product is at once startlingly funny and tragic. Rockwell's Victor is an emotional conman, utterly full of self-loathing, a state of being compounded by the fact that every time he does something horrible, it ends up helping someone else become a better person. His choking episodes truly give his rescuers savior complexes; his sex addiction leads others to true love—all of which cements his own self-hatred, a feeling that's magnified by his desperate need to get his mother (Anjelica Huston) to finally tell him who his father is and the utterly shocking explanation from her doctor (Kelly Macdonald) that Victor might be cloned from Jesus' foreskin.
Underneath all the insanity, Choke has a surprisingly tender emotional core. “What's ironic and funny is that here's a guy that's trying desperately to cling to his nihilistic, jackass, anti-hero status, but everything he does to be evil seems to help somebody,” Gregg says. “He's a sin eater. That was just one of the things that made me feel this had to be seen. It's somebody who gets unwittingly backed into becoming a good person.”
That's the strange thing about Palahniuk's work. Even though his characters are, on the surface, loathsome creatures, readers often find that they're still people we all have something in common with.
“I think that's something people miss about Chuck's work a lot,” Gregg says. “It's very funny, and he's definitely interested in finding things that are considered taboo, that he feels are hypocritical, and poking a stick at them. But underneath the titillating, sensationalistic stuff people focus on in his work, there's a lot of compassion. He writes about extreme outsiders, yet I think the size of his fan base is testament to the fact that by the time people finish his books, there's a real connection. And I think that's because he's very comfortable and brave about writing characters we connect to much more than we initially want to admit.”