October 6, 2008

Deviancy Has Rarely Seemed This Good

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What do 12-step programs and Jesus Christ’s foreskin have to do with each other? Victor Mancini, apparently. In Choke, Mancini, played by Sam Rockwell, is a (barely) recovering sex addict who works as a tour guide for a re-enactment of colonial America. His mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston) is rapidly deteriorating within a mental hospital and, in order to pay for her care, Victor grifts patrons at restaurants by pretending to choke on his food. He defends his actions by claiming to inject a sense of purpose into the patrons’ otherwise empty lives — he turns ordinary people into saviors and heroes.
When Victor visits his mother in the hospital, she has trouble recognizing him and speaks to him under the pretense that he is someone else. She tells Victor, believing that he is her lawyer, that she needs to tell her son about the true identity of his father. For Victor, this is a shock, as the only knows about his father from what little Ida has told him. Victor starts attempting to trace back to his roots with the help of Paige Marshall, a doctor who also believes that she can help cure his mother.
As the film progresses,Victor finds his mother’s diary in the hopes of reading something revealing about the identity of his father. Unfortunately, the diary is written in Italian. Dr. Marshall steps in again and offers to read it. She discovers within the diary that Victor was conceived after a religious relic containing Jesus’s foreskin was stolen and taken by his mother to an experimental clinic, thus making him the “half-clone of the son of God.” Victor, this seems to be in conflict with the nature of his existence.
However, the news starts to slowly grow on Victor, and he begins to re-examine his actions. At the moment when his cognitive dissonance has been reconciled to a passable degree, he finds out that the entire story was a lie. His mother tells him that she stole him from a stroller when he was a baby. He finds out that Dr. Marshall is actually a patient who voluntarily committed herself after quitting med school.
What’s interesting is how quickly all of these things work themselves out. It’s not entirely unbelievable that it would be possible. However, the distinct way in which Victor Mancini’s world fell apart seemed to be just a bit too easy to put back together that neatly. The man loses his mother, but he ultimately gets the girl. If I had a dollar for every movie that ended with an “untameable” man “won over” by a woman to the side of monogamy, I’d have enough money to produce a film that ended the way things do the rest of the time (that’s just about 99.09 percent of it).
Endings aside, the rest of the film was brilliantly done. It could be compared to a symphony with various grotesque motifs that appear sporadically and echo each other. In the film, a lot of the motifs concern themselves with the concepts of redemption and salvation, both seeking it and providing others with a sense of it. What makes this interesting to watch is the fact that nothing is as it seems. The film is like a series of funhouse mirrors that distort your perception of each character and regardless of how likeable or distasteful they seem, they are all portrayed in a way that showcases their complexity. It is extremely difficult to define any character as necessarily good or bad in this film, and that quality alone makes it worth watching.
Choke also captured par excellence the texture of seediness — the repeated shots of Victor having casual sex with a plethora of women throughout the film are shot in a light that manages to capture the frenzy and desperation (punctuated by moments of numb satisfaction) that are the hallmarks of addiction. These scenes managed to strip away the glamour and intrigue that sex has been imbued with and reduced it to its most base depiction.
However, above all else, the film’s greatest strength is the way in which so many disparate corners of life were woven together seamlessly. With the exception of the ending, everything seemed somewhat believable, despite its absurdity. Perhaps this cinematic trompe l’oeil is due to the fact that the even film’s most unsavory details were portrayed in a way that reflects life’s ambiguities and hypocrisies. Or maybe, like Victor Mancini himself, the film operates as a coherent whole due to the fact that certain contradictions can be justified. What seems to be at the very core of Choke is that any action, when considered in isolation can seem ugly; but when placed within a greater context and justified in precisely the right way, it can be transformed and even glorified.