Dir: Clark Gregg. US. 2008. 89mins

Actor Clark Gregg's ambitious adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's 2001 cult novel Choke is stylistically rambunctious and tonally inconsistent. If the center never quite holds and it never quite reaches complete success artistically, the movie certainly commands interest through the superb lead performance of Sam Rockwell and the verve and headiness of the director's reach.

Palahniuk gained instant hipster cachet with his Fight Club that David Fincher rhapsodised over in 1999. Like that novel, Choke is concerned with identity and damaged masculinity. The movie also intersects with Stephen Frears' adaptation of Jim Thompson's pulp novel The Grifters. In both films, Anjelica Huston is a confidence hustler whose amoral actions carry terrible consequences on her son. Rockwell's perverse, detached work summons memories of his recent performances in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men and George Clooney's Confessions OfA Dangerous Mind.

The movie premiered in the dramatic competition at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight acquired most worldwide rights for $5m. The movie's far more graphic and explicit, particularly sexually, and marks an atypical acquisition than the kind of titles (Waitress, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine) the label has made its reputation. Even so, they should ride the cult endurance of the novel to give the work a heightened recognition in the marketplace, particularly in home ancillaries. Internationally, the movie is bound to play to the same antagonized young male audience.

The title refers to the elaborate confidence games played out by the amoral protagonist, Victor Mancini (Rockwell), of deliberately swallowing food or foreign objects at restaurants and coffee shops, hovering on the brink of suffocation until a passer by offers help. Victor subsequently extracts cash payments. From the opening monologue, he makes no apologies or attempt to soften his mordant, self-abasing sensibility. He's introduced at a clinic for sex addicts, which he naturally interrupts to have bathroom sex with another offender Nico (de la Huerta). His best friend Denny (Henke) is his partner who's guilty of serial masturbation.

Gregg also adapted the screenplay and he layers the materials with flashbacks that help describe Mancini's itinerant childhood with his mother Ida (Huston), eluding authorities and living outside all social norms. The contemporary Ida is now trapped in a special needs facility for women, her mind ravaged by mental illness and dementia that renders her incapable of recognizing Victor. In turn, he blames his self-destructive behaviour on his uncertain paternity and his complete unawareness of his father's identity or background. At the facility, Victor meets a new doctor (Macdonald) who offers a rather unorthodox form of treatment, a brand of sexual stem cell research, in an effort to unlock Ida's trapped or withering mind.

This is a lot of material to assimilate for the most experienced of directors, particularly for an 89-minute feature and Gregg has significantly streamlined the novel. The movie works best in moments and fragments rather than a sustained whole. The bracing portrait of sexual exhibition grabs attention. Cinematographer Tim Orr (George Washington) gives the work a freewheeling, simultaneous grungy and rough-hewn visual design. The movie's tone is somewhat incoherent, traversing the past and present, ranging from satire to a kind of bleak, even mordant sexual aggressiveness enacted by both men and women.

Like Fight Club, the movie's plot requires some surprise twists. Fortunately, Rockwell's performance is the shaping influence. His commentary and observations are cruel, withering and painfully uncompromising. Even when the movie doesn't work or his actions are deplorable, Rockwell is the stabilizing presence. He's easy to hate though impossible to forget. The movie's not quite there, but it represents a dark ride into the night that unleashes a series of precarious thrills.

Production companies/backers
Contrafilm (US)
ATO Pictures Production (US)

US distributor
Fox Searchlight

International sales
(1) 310 273 6700

Executive producers
Mike S Ryan
Derrick Tseng
Gary Ventimiglia
Mary Vernieu

Beau Flynn
Tripp Vinson
Johnathan Dorfman
Temple Fennell

Clark Gregg
based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk


Tim Orr

Production designer
Roshelle Berliner

Joe Klotz

Nathan Larson

Main cast
Sam Rockwell
Anjelica Huston
Kelly Macdonald
Brad William Henke
Clark Gregg
Bijou Phillips
Paz de la Huerta
Joel Grey