After being discharged from the Navy, Mexican drifter Elvis (Bernal) tracks down his father, David (Hurt), a reformed hellraiser who now preaches at an evangelical Southern church. David slowly comes to accept Elvis, unaware that his own past sins are about to be repaid, big time.
It’s said that if a movie needs more than one viewing to appreciate it, it hasn’t done its job, but The King is proof of how much expositional faff there is on screen these days. Though it seems on the surface to be a simple and highly overheated melodrama — with at least two unexpected scenes of violence that will provoke some scoffing from viewers and possibly even outright disbelief — this low-key and deceptively disturbing psycho thriller is actually a rich Southern Gothic fable that rarely wastes a moment of its time.
And that starts from the outset, when sailor Elvis (Gael García Bernal) takes leave from his ship. Pay attention: this isn’t just background, it’s character. What’s important to get the most out of The King is to know at all times who’s where and doing what, and why they’re doing it. Or even just why they think they’re doing it. And while it might seem at first glance that Elvis is a fine, upstanding citizen coming out of the Forces, with his cute, he-was-Natalie-Portman’s-boyfriend-in-real-life-you-know good looks, nothing could be further from the truth. Here, we must know that Elvis’ life has been regimented, and the more we find out about his backstory, we shouldn’t be too surprised at how he begins to behave without that kind of discipline. Because he has none of his own. Whatsoever.
The first sign of this is when Elvis meets his father David’s new family, a rigidly Christian unit that, wife Twyla (Laura ‘Mulholland Drive’ Harring) aside, knows nothing of David’s dark past. David (William Hurt) sends Elvis away on the vague promise of a future meeting, but the damage has been done. Elvis becomes taken with his own 16 year-old half-sister Malerie (Broken Flowers’ Pell James), and starts a love affair that is obviously very, very wrong.
This part of the film plays like an incestuous Badlands, and the waltzing, almost kitsch Valley Of The Dolls-style score is key to one of the film’s many themes: lost innocence. Malerie’s journey is not one of an angel to a tramp, but of a girl starting to question her father’s beliefs, even when this means defying him in the most extreme way imaginable. For want of a better word, James is just so great in these scenes, morphing from a schoolgirl whose glazed face simply endures sex to a young woman who wants it, thinks she can handle it and may actually be able to.
Now we come to The King’s other main theme: innocence regained. If you thought William Hurt was good in A History Of Violence, wait and see what he does here. Initially a threatening presence, he comes to represent a man who’s trying to be good, even when the cards are stacked against him. His blind, or rather touching, belief in the Scriptures leads to an affecting scene outside his church when Twyla, freaked out by David’s unerring ability to spin their family’s crises into being a part of the Lord’s plan, runs
out into the oncoming traffic, mumbling, “Nothing means anything anymore.
But that doesn’t mean for a minute that The King is one of those sneering liberal films that poke fun at ingenuous Bible-Belt Christianity. Far from it; though darkly funny, Milo Addica and James Marsh’s screenplay is acutely sensitive to the issues it raises, and this is where its power lies. Chances are, it will come and go at the cinema, but on DVD this film will be ripe for revisiting, if only for the three essential questions it raises: What is goodness? What is sin? And if you want to, how do you get right with God?
A compelling, intelligent and provocative sins-of-the-father story with a terrific ensemble cast, and a standout Mr. Ripley turn by the ever-versatile Gael García Bernal.