By admitting the following, I’m probably a terrible person: I really, really, enjoyed Choke. There are no press screenings at the Sydney Film Festival, meaning that critics—though judging from the sparsely attended press row there seem to be very few about—watch all films with the paying public. What lining up for the day’s tickets every morning lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in gauging general opinion. Borne along by an enthusiastic audience, which was positively smitten by Sam Rockwell’s turn as a weasely and charming reprobate, I was sucked in, in spite of myself, and oddly able to overlook Choke’s flaws. Like a Seurat painting, it falls apart under the magnifying glass, nothing more than a confusion of garish, brightly colored dots; and yet viewed from far away, in the moment if you will, it is completely beguiling. But I was first seduced by Fight Club too, and Choke is David Fincher’s film reflected in a mirror lightly. Chuck Palahniuk, the dark prince of skewed satire, provides the source material yet again, glossing the same thematic sitting ducks: insanity, help groups, mind numbing employment, officious bureaucracy, the mute middle class desperate for human contact, dime-store psychology blaming negligent parents, and even airlines.
The wrinkle here is that Victor Mancini (Rockwell) goes to Sex Addicts Anonymous, works at a historical re-creation of an American colonial village, and runs a sideline con where, as per the film’s title, he forces himself to choke in restaurants in front of wealthy patrons—who then feel so responsible for bringing Victor back to life that they send him money to care for a bevy of phantom illnesses. Like the rest of Choke, the scam has a kind of perverse logic—Victor dubs it a “savior” experience, where money is traded for a sense of self-worth—but falling for that reasoning also means giving credence to a pretty dire and pessimistic view of the human species.
There are flashes of humanity, delivered by the captivating trio of Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald, and Anjelica Huston. Although greatly reminiscent of her matriarch figures from Wes Anderson’s universe, Huston is a quiet revelation as Rockwell’s asylum-bound mother clinging to the last vestiges of her sanity—less quirky and more brokenly human. However—and here’s an emblem of what’s wrong with Choke—when viewed in flashback, she’s a domineering and self-actualized social protester, and hateful because she’s obliterated her son’s childhood during her life on the run. The about-face that’s required to suddenly identify with a character because of one single epiphany is simply too big of an ask—not that I noticed it at the time, being too much drawn in by its sardonic streak and smug intelligence after days of bleak and protracted observational dramas. Choke’s black and mordant but also impossibly overwritten, excessively structured, and runs around with signal flares directing us towards how clever it is. Palahniuk is bent on eviscerating society for being a dead-end cesspool filled with charlatans, whores, pimps, perverts, hucksters, and false prophets. But what does he offer as an alternative, other than a limp road-to-Damascus conversion? At the time, I was taken in, drawn to Sam Rockwell’s cynical, self-deprecating shtick. But the further I get from Choke, the more I hate it (and hate myself for liking it): the very definition of a guilty pleasure. —JAMES CRAWFORD