The creepy prodigal son tale The King takes a young sailor (just out of the navy) named Elvis, sends him to find his father, a born-again preacher who never married Elvisí mom (a whore), then falls in love with the preacherís teenage daughter (his half-sister), and somehow never descends into sheer idiocy. This may be pulp material, but the telling is first-rate.
Elvis is played by Gael Garcia Bernal
, who, in his first English-language role, absolutely walks away with the film. His Elvis is an intriguing blank from the get-go, striding off his ship and back into the world with just a small bag of clothes and a his M1 rifle (how he was able to smuggle this out of the military so easily is never quite clear). In a sharply-edited opening sequence Ė first-time feature director James Marsh
has a tight hold on his material Ė Elvis heads to his childhood home of Corpus Christi, visits a hooker, buys a car, checks into a motel, and finds his father, all with the same determined yet casual expression on his face; just checking things off his list. His father, David Sandow (William Hurt
, managing not to overact for once, even with the bad facial hair and deep Texas accent) is a preacher at a small church where his teenage son plays uptempo Christian rock songs and service times are announced outside on a garish red LED display. When Elvis finally confronts his estranged father, Sandow acknowledges that that was a different time in his life and tells Elvis in no uncertain terms to stay the hell away from his family. Article continues below
Elvis is nothing, however, if not determined. He starts shadowing the Sandows, quickly befriending, and then seducing, their 16-year-old daughter Malerie (a sunny Pell James
). The fact that this is his half-sister doesnít seem to bother Elvis one bit. Heís content to work his pizza delivery job, assist Malerie in some good old-fashioned pastorís daughter rebellion, and worm his way ever closer into their lives. Itís easy to see how Malerie falls for Elvis. Bernalís insistently cheery and earnest demeanor would, when used to full effect, melt the iciest of hearts. Itís a sublimely subtle performance, likeable to the extreme, yet showing a flicker of sociopathy every now and again to keep everything unhinged just enough.
Marsh co-wrote the elegant script with Milo Addica, a co-writer on Monsterís Ball, a film which shares with this one a red-state setting and certain bloody sense of fate. They arenít afraid to upturn audience expectations on a dime and to plummet very quickly into surprisingly dark places. Itís a gorgeously shot film, with some of the outdoor scenes shared by Malerie and Elvis holding a sun-soaked youthful beauty that recalls Badlands. Like Malick, the filmmakers are digging at the malevolence behind the beauty, a malevolence that they unleash later on with a disturbingly calm fury.
This is not to say that The King doesnít occasionally take things too far. The stabs at black humor are mostly mistimed and the film almost blows it completely by laying on the Biblical overtones with a trowel. Itís not a story easily shaken, however, or easily pigeonholed, inhabiting instead a bright and evil category all its own.