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First Rule of Strip Club

Choke (2008)

Jessica Miglio/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Choke” marks the second big-screen adaptation of a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, a sardonic chronicler of our hidden neuroses and otherworldly fetishes. The first, David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” rode raw fight scenes, a stark vision of an anti-consumerist uprising and Brad Pitt’s muscles to cult-classic status. This one replaces Mr. Pitt with Sam Rockwell; the focus on pleasurable physical violence shifts to sexual perversion; and writer-director Clark Gregg’s film has an altogether less dreary tone than Mr. Fincher’s dark, deadly serious project.

Let's leave it to the Palahniuk experts to determine which better captures the spirit of the author’s writing, but I will say that, onscreen, I much prefer the complex emotions of “Choke” to “Fight Club’s” high-concept posturing. Mr. Gregg’s film works so well not because of its willingness to push boundaries with transgressive content, but because one gets the unshakable sense that there are actual, interesting human beings taking part in the crazy games on display.

Mr. Rockwell plays Victor, a sex addict with a horrible job – playing an 18th century Irish servant in a historical theme park – and a horrible, domineering mother (Anjelica Huston). The story chronicles the road to recovery taken by this sad, lonely man, who dives into a constant stream of oddball sexual encounters and often dramatically feigns choking in public in desperate attempts at human connection. Intermittently, the narrative flashes back to Victor’s tumultuous childhood to reveal the ways in which mommy dearest facilitated his psychological afflictions.

The tone changes repeatedly through “Choke,” which features sex scenes that border on slapstick, introspective drama and moments of redemption. The filmmaker – a longtime actor, first-time director and second-time screenwriter – navigates them exceedingly well. Things never seem choppy; Victor’s development follows a clear, perceptible arc and it becomes possible to have empathy for him while also feeling pretty repulsed. Visually, Mr. Gregg minimizes the flourishes and shades everything in a 1970s-ish brown that keeps what might have been a flighty production grounded in a sort of gritty reality. These touches effectively emphasize the secret to “Choke’s” success: the agility with which it follows people behaving in unfathomable ways and makes us feel as if we know and understand them.


Opens on Sept. 26 in the United States and on Nov. 26 in Britain.

Directed by Clark Gregg; written by Mr. Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Johnathan Dorfman and Temple Fennell; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Sam Rockwell (Victor Mancini), Anjelica Huston (Ida J. Mancini) and Kelly Macdonald (Paige Marshall).


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