Upon his honorable discharge from the Navy, Elvis (Gael García Bernal) makes his way from California to Corpus Christi, Texas. As he travels, it becomes increasingly clear that he is awaited nowhere, by no one. He visits a brothel, buys an old beater and finds himself an apartment in a residential motel. Then he puts on his uniform, tracks down his father, the single focal point and only ballast in his new, aimless life.
The Rev. David Sandow (William Hurt) is a successful (o brave new world) minister, who knocked up Elvis' now-dead mother and abandoned her before he "got right with God." Since then, God has rewarded him with a steady stream of cash from his faithful flock, a beautiful house, a beautiful wife (Laura Harring) and two devout and obedient children.
It should come as no surprise that "The King," directed by John Marsh from a script by Milo Addica ("Monster's Ball"), is a dark and deeply unsettling movie with its roots in classical tragedy. The seeds (with apologies) of Sandow's downfall are planted well before the story begins, and from the moment it opens the tragic end unfolds slowly and inexorably. Elvis is clearly trouble, but he emits a sunny kind of menace and a youthful optimism on the verge of being extinguished. Sandow is neither the prig nor the hypocrite that we might expect. But the return of his prodigal son makes him nervous, and his first reaction is to bar Elvis from approaching his family.
Too late. Elvis and Sandow's 16-year-old daughter, Malerie (Pell James), have already embarked on a relationship, though she is unaware of his connection to her father. García Bernal's performance is superb; his pursuit of Malerie seems neither predatory or vindictive, merely compartmentalized. When her brother, Paul (Paul Dano), confronts him, however, he responds with the violence and cold-bloodedness we've been expecting.
Marsh and Addica refrain from trumping up the menace; instead, "The King" draws its feeling of dread from a profound and pervasive ambivalence. Like its title, a hesitant dual reference to Jesus and Elvis, the movie steadfastly refuses to stack the deck. Is Elvis a dangerous drifter or an abandoned child? Is Paul a good Christian boy or a threat to his community? (He heads a student committee to persuade the school board to incorporate "intelligent design" in the school curriculum.) Is Sandow a hypocrite, or a truly spiritual person grappling with the consequences of past sins? And how far can the concept of Christian forgiveness be stretched? What will it, and won't it, accommodate?
These are questions that don't lend themselves to a three-act Hollywood structure. "The King" ends abruptly, just as the question is posed, on a chilling philosophical note: How much violence can he take before God stops forgiving?
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual activity involving a teen, some violence and language.
A presentation of Thinkfilm and Contentfilm in association with Film Four. Director James Marsh. Screenplay Milo Addica, Marsh. Producers Addica, James Wilson. Director of photography Eigil Bryld. Editor Jinx Godfrey. Music Max Avery Lichtenstein.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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