Inevitably, and perhaps unfairly, the immediate comparison everybody has drawn — encouraged by Fox Searchlight, the distributor, no less — with Choke, director Clark Gregg’s feature debut, has been with Fight Club. This is not without reason — after all, this is only the second film to be adapted from a Chuck Palahniuk novel — the first, of course, being David Fincher’s opus on homoeroticism and soap-related acts of terrorism.
Nonetheless, in almost every other quantifiable respect, the two films are starkly different — and the contrast is really warranted little more than with any other picture.
Fitting somewhat uneasily between black comedy, mid-life crisis drama and family reconciliation, Choke cannot have been an easy story to put on screen. Cinemagoers expecting easily definable genre will be disappointed, as will anyone expecting the full force of Palahniuk’s devilish imagination.
Gregg struggles to fully reflect the author’s unique authorial voice — an admittedly daunting task — and hones in on one aspect of the story, the romantic one, thereby creating the impression that the remaining strands have simply been jammed in as a neglected afterthought. At best, there are echoes of the original text’s narrative tone — notably through the use of detached, laconic voiceover – as well as that of Fight Club, which in this respect it does attempt to mimic — but they remain only that: echoes; inferior reproductions.
In spite of its relative shortcomings, there is no denying that this is an enjoyably unusual film, and the relatively weak script is magnificently redeemed by strong leading performances. Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, stuck in his job as an 18th century reenactor with best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), after dropping out of medical school to pay for mother Ida’s (Angelica Huston) care home treatment.
An unavoidable weakness in development derives from Palahniuk’s own obsession with endowing each of his characters with a single ‘crazy’ attribute, and then defining them according to this feature throughout the duration of his novels. So, Victor and Denny are sex addicts, Ida is a slightly sociopathic con artist, and this is how we ought to view them.
Remarkably, Rockwell and Huston both succeed in bringing a greater level of humanity to their roles, earning empathy and perhaps even a little recognition. Whilst the former is undoubtedly a solid lead, it is Huston who provides the most captivating moments, flitting between charismatic and dangerously unhinged with fluidity and conviction.
What’s more, the romantic arc, between Victor and the slightly mysterious, ever-present Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), is an endearing one — appropriately unconventional, but never in the contrived or tacky manner that new directors seem to opt for as a means of establishing their indie credentials. MacDonald is beguiling; her native Scottish accent seamlessly replaced with a soft American twang, and she demonstrates an ever-expanding versatility, particularly after a previous role in No Country For Old Men.
The final, typically Palahniuk-ian denouement — which I shan’t ruin here — although surprising for those unfamiliar with the story, is hardly the shocking revelation that Gregg perhaps was aiming for. However, the more understated approach through which it is revealed feels nicely befitting to the overall feel: hardly groundbreaking, but reassuringly entertaining.