Movie Review: SUN CHOKE – Exploitative nudity and a deliberately evasive screenplay make for a frustratingly hollow movie.

It’s unfair to say I disliked Sun Choke, because it has a few good things going for it, but after getting around to finally watching it after about six months, I came away from it mostly unimpressed and though I wasn’t angered by it, it prompted me to take to Twitter to get a couple of things off my chest.  I’ll preface this review by letting you know that it’s being written in the immediate aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.  What does that have to do with this dark psychological drama?  Read on …

The absolute main reason I wanted to see Sun Choke is Barbara Crampton.  I’ve been a fan of hers since she broke out in two famously loose 80s adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft works – The Reanimator, and From Beyond – and I hadn’t seen her in much of anything until the haunted house story We Are Still Here.  It’s ironic that part of this review is going to deal with something that never bothered me as a teen back in those days, but sure bothers me now.

Sun Choke tells the story of Janie (played by Freaks and Geeks alum Sarah Hagan), and her tortuous therapy sessions at the hands of Irma (Crampton), described in the movie as a “caretaker”, but the role she plays is essentially a live-in therapist, helping Janie recover from what appears to have been a complete mental breakdown some time in the recent past.  The methods are unconventional to say the least, and like me you’ll wonder how effective they can possibly be.  Wonder away!  You’ll find that it doesn’t really matter why the treatments seem bizarre, because there is no explanation of them, or even the nature of Janie’s breakdown, but soon into the movie she’s deemed able to venture back outside the confines of the sterile, pale, post-modern mansion where most of the movie takes place.  On her first time out (oddly enough, she’s not chaperoned by Crampton), Janie becomes obsessed with Savannah, an attractive young woman she spots while driving around.  It’s abundantly clear from this scene that whatever condition Janie’s suffering from, it’s not even close to being alleviated by her bizarre, controlling therapy, and thus Irma’s credibility in the movie is badly corroded.  Over the course of a few excursions outside, Janie’s secretive obsession becomes all-consuming, leading to a strict escalation of her treatment that moves from “therapy” to physical torture at the hands of Irma, and to Janie’s overly aggressive pursuit of her new interest.

It’s around this part of the plot where the story wanders in to “psychological horror” territory, fueled by Janie’s descent back into the madness she had seemingly been recovering from.  The movie crosses over that line with one scene of explosive violence, then continues in that vein until the end of the movie, but on the way it turned me off completely with what I consider to be exploitative and unnecessary  female nudity.  So here we are, returning in circular fashion, to the opening paragraph.  In Barbara Crampton’s two earlier movies, she’s naked for a good portion.  For a teenage guy, it was a pretty great visual, but then I grew up and had a daughter of my own, and now we’re living in a world that’s only now waking up to the fact that objectification of women is a pretty nauseating thing.  Harvey Weinstein is finally paying the price for decades of abuse and sexual harassment, and all you have to do is think back over the years to the “casting couch” anecdotes that were just “a part” of the biz.  They’re not so harmless anymore, and as I mentioned in my review of Blade Runner 2049, I’ve become particularly sensitive (and yeah, maybe overly sensitive) to the objectification of women in the most powerful means of expression we have: movies.  I am politically as middle of the road as you can get, and nobody would EVER refer to me as “a Liberal”, but this is something that annoys the hell out of me.

And I’ll qualify it a little.  In context, I’m perfectly fine with female nudity onscreen, but in most cases there is no real reason for it other than cheap, exploitative titillation.  Naomi Watt’s brief topless scene in Shut In is one example, and so too is the nudity in Sun Choke.  Most of it is so forced and in your face that you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a 90s Skinemax “erotic thriller” at times.  The only thing missing is soft lighting and a sax on the score.  When Irma shaves Janie’s legs with an open razor in the bathtub, I wondered what story value was gained in that scene?  What character or plot detail was being revealed here?  The answer is: nothing.  Likewise, when Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane) drops her towel in one scene, I asked myself, who is this scene for?  Not for those following the story.  Given that the towel drop is a cringingly obvious lead-in to a lesbian encounter, it felt insultingly adolescent.  The exact same point of the scene could have been made without the camera – us – leering at the actress.  I’m projecting my own prejudices here – I don’t want to imply that writer/director Ben Cresciman is just another behind-the-camera misogynist, but there will come a time soon where actresses will refuse to take roles because of pointless scenes like this, and then the movie industry will step into the present.  Just to balance this out, there is a perfectly contextual scene of female nudity that comes right at the end, and it’s designed to – and does – capture the solitude of death, the ultimate shedding of life and spirit, and all the hang ups we cling to while alive.

If the nudity doesn’t bother you, what might get your goat is the lack of context for anything else.  Janie, Irma, and Savannah – they all exist in a kind of vacuum.  Cresciman places no narrative value on the why, only on the is, and he might think it’s enough for viewers to make their own minds up about the unfolding events, but it isn’t.  I was reminded a little of It Comes At Night, another purposefully underwritten dark drama.  If, by omitting context, do some moviemakers feel they’re somehow not really making genre movies? Or do they feel that it’s their job to elevate genre movies to a higher place?  Omission of detail creates a false, temporary sense of meaning and importance, but only depth of story actually accomplishes it.


© Andrew Hope, 2017

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