2008-09-26 (Limited release)

Working as a “historical reenactor” at a place called American Colonial Village, Victor (Sam Rockwell) wears a wig and buckle shoes. It’s a dreary, soul-sucking gig, he sighs, “Think: Gilligan meets Groundhog Day.” Again and again, he cleans out the barn, carries water, and pesters the lovely milkmaid for another “turn.” She gestures rudely from across the sloping field. “When the Mayflower sails out of my ass,” she harrumphs.

A sex addict who attends therapy meetings and screws a fellow attendee in the bathroom during break, Victor doesn’t mean to be stupid and offensive. Or maybe he does, but he has reasons, reasons that have to do with his mother. If Choke isn’t the first movie where a young narrator’s self-pity, obsessiveness, and desperation are blamed on his mother, it is one of the more emphatic versions. Each time Ida (Anjelica Huston) appears — in flashbacks when she’s kidnapping young Victor (Jonah Bobo) from his current foster parents, or in present day, when she doesn’t recognize Victor when he comes to see her in a nursing home — she appears needy and outsized. As she fills the frame, she also occupies Victor’s mind, conscious and, apparently, unconscious.

Based on another Chuck Palahniuk novel, Clark Gregg’s movie tracks between these psychic realms, backward and forward in time, in and out of desire and fear. If Victor doesn’t know exactly what he wants, he imagines that he’ll discover it if only he can convince his wandering-minded mother to tell him the true story of his father. Toward that end, he enlists his best friend and fellow reenactor Denny (Brad William Henke) to play him at the nursing home. Ida insists on seeing Victor as her lawyer (“You’re just like my son Victor,” she complains, “Always trying to shove some inedible mush down my throat, my son Victor, the minimum wage tour guide”). And so, he reasons, if he brings in Denny and introduces him as her son, she’ll believe it, at least for the few minutes she’ll need to remember the story of her pregnancy.

Victor’s interest in his paternity is both exceedingly standard and blandly perverse. He is, on one, mythic and abstract level, seeking out what it means to be a man — whether absent or overbearing, brutally aggressive or pathologically passive. But even with his inflated self-image, Victor is startled to learn that Ida believes he was born as the result of an immaculate conception. He tries to process this bombshell with the help of a doctor on Ida’s floor, Paige (Kelly Macdonald). When they meet, she seems to know him immediately (“You’re the tour guide,” she says, at which point he corrects, “Historical interpreter”), then suggests a scheme to save his mother from her debilitation, namely, producing a child who will be a “healthy, genetically compatible donor.” Exactly what needs to be donated or how the donation will help Ida is never established, but Victor goes along, apparently taking a leap of faith.

This last point is underscored when Paige insists they have sex in the institution’s chapel, where ever-ready Victor finds himself suddenly unable to perform. The very idea of such inability is unnerving for him (as he puts it in his voiceover, “I’d like to see you cop a chubby with the Holy Savior starin’ down your crack”), but for the broader point has to do with performance as a mode of existence. Throughout Choke, Victor is performing — at work, in front of his mother, in his flashbacks as a child, and in those scenes illustrating the film’s title. In these, Victor swallows a chunk of food in a restaurant, the proceeds to choke until a kind fellow diner — hopefully a wealthy one, that is, not someone who “brings down $350 a week” — performs the Heimlich maneuver and saves his life. The result is a variable period of time when the rescuer sends him checks by mail, out of some perceived connection to him as victim. Though Denny warns, “You can’t fool people into loving you,” Victor has learned otherwise. The money is a sign of some kind of “loving,” however superficial or irrational. “If somebody saves you,” he tells himself, “They’ll love you forever.”

He has learned this trick from his scam-artist mother, who has never saved him or loved him “forever.” He remembers his many years on the road with her as a series of performances, each more fraught than the other. And with each choking performance, he recalls, he was rewarded not only by the rescuer’s attention, but also — at least briefly — Ida’s. As Victor tells his story, he is increasingly focused on her inability to provide a good mom’s “unconditional love,” no matter what sort of performance he comes up with. In one flashback, little Victor looks longingly at a park where other children are playing, and Ida shuts down his fantasy: “We have to keep moving, honey,” she says, “If we stopped at every playground we came across, we’d never get anything done.”

It’s never clear what she means to get done, only what does not get done, namely, the raising of a healthy, self-secure son. Indeed, in Victor’s telling, the scope of Ida’s bad-momness is vast and agonizing. Still, he believes her story, as it is his too. On hearing that he is “divine,” that he is hers and hers alone, Victor absorbs the obligation and overwhelming return of being Christ-like, meant to save others as he has been saved. It’s certainly a clever and familiar story, self-serving and self-performative (and made nearly convincing in Rockwell’s nuanced performance). As the women in his mother’s nursing home — Paige included — seek him out for restoration and deliverance, an embodied reason for being, he can see himself as the ultimate son, father, and savior.

RATING 5 / 10