It’s hard to believe that almost 10 years have passed since the release of Fight Club. Adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher’s wildly successful studio picture injected some much-needed grittiness and transgression into Hollywood. Although the film’s controversial nature and its huge cultural impact drew significant attention to Palahniuk himself and boosted Fincher’s already impressive reputation, it’s taken until now to get a second adaptation off the ground. Despite Palahniuk’s full endorsement and star names attached, actor-screenwriter-director Clark Gregg spent seven years pulling the project together, funding the film independently, before securing distribution through Fox Searchlight.
Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a misanthrope who works as a performer in historical re-enactments and sex addict, with a hospitalised mother who can’t remember his name, a best friend who masturbates 15 times a day, and a bank account so empty he’s forced into unthinkable acts of con artistry to support his mother’s staggering medical bills. In spite of these many drawbacks, he exudes a curious charm and is a likeable character. Victor’s journey centres on his mother Ida (a mesmerising Anjelica Huston), who harbours a deep secret regarding his estranged father and his unconventional childhood. It is this relationship that dominates the film, and the dynamic between the two characters is well observed and at times genuinely poignant.
The title refers to the serial acts of staged choking in restaurants whereby Mancini welcomes the empathy and occasional cheques from diners who unsuspectingly save his life. While these scenes are filled with the macabre humour that is to be expected from Palahniuk’s work, there is an element of sincerity in the comfort he receives from being held in a stranger’s arms.
Gregg, who himself appears as Victor’s despicably bureaucratic superior, directs with a surprisingly light touch. While those who enjoyed Fincher’s stylised Fight Club may be put off by the more conventional cinematography here, it is a look that suits the piece well, even in the darker scenes, which include a consensual rape gone wrong and a hilariously morbid incident involving missing anal beads.
At times, however, the tone of the film is uneven, and in many ways the strands of narrative in the novel don’t blend so well on film, particularly the scenes involving Victor’s work as ‘the backbone of colonial America’, which mark too distant a departure from his central quest. While the genre-bending nature of the piece is admirable to an extent, Choke doesn’t really find its feet until the final reel, which builds to a truly satisfying climax that is genuinely moving, aided by a fitting ending track in Radiohead’s ‘Reckoner’.