The King (2005)


(director/writer: James Marsh; screenwriter: Milo Addica; cinematographer: Eigil Bryld; editor: Jinx Godfrey; music: Max Avery Lichtenstein; cast: Gael García Bernal (Elvis Valderez), William Hurt (Pastor David Sandow), Pell James (Malerie Sandow), Laura Harring (Twyla Sandow, the pastor’s wife), Paul Dano (Paul Sandow), Matthew Buckley (Deck Officer); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Milo Addica/James Wilson; THINKFilm; 2005-USA/UK)

“An undemanding morality tale set in the Bible Belt.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British documentary director James Marsh (“Wisconsin Death Trip”/”The Burger and the King”) and his co-writer Milo Addica (co-writer on “Monster’s Ball”) serve up an undemanding morality tale set in the Bible Belt among hypocrites that’s influenced by Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It’s filled with a slow unsettling lullaby-style score that keeps the mood ominously threatening.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Mexican-American Elvis Valderez (Gael García Bernal) is a 21-year-old just receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy and heading from California to Corpus Christi, Texas, with his few belongings that include a Navy issued rifle. On the way he takes a turn in a brothel and buys a battered 1969 Cougar. He dons his Navy uniform and confronts his long-abandoned father, fundamentalist Baptist Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt), adorned with mustache-sideburn facial hair, whom he never met before but heard about from his now deceased Mexican mother Yolanda. His dad is now married with two teenage children, a son Paul (Paul Dano) heading for college and aiming to follow in dad’s footsteps and the virginal 16-year-old daughter Malerie (Pell James). The pastor treats his illegitimate son as if he were a deadly virus and can only say that the affair happened before he was a Christian. The aimless Elvis settles down in town in a dumpy motel, gets a job as a pizza delivery man and the Latino heartthrob wins the heart of the unsuspecting Malerie who learns too late that lover boy is her half-brother. Elvis courts Malerie with such passion either for revenge or because he digs incest or because he just has the hots for the minor. The lustful taboo relationship results in Malerie’s pregnancy and the murder of Paul.

There are many Biblical allusions and guilt-trips played out, as the filmmaker goes all out to set a dark mood and use the sterile surroundings to point out that extremists find comfort in such stifling places. The pic offers a creepy performance by Bernal, the Mexican actor in his first American film, who never lets on whether he’s just evil, stupid or a wacko (as if it makes a difference!). It builds its theatrical plot, rooted in classical tragedy, and concludes with a heavy-handed hysterical climax that wants to say something weighty about small town Americana, religion, repression, loneliness, faith and forgiveness, but the only problem is that so many other similar themed films have already weighed in on this and many have said it better and less smugly. By the end the film can’t even make up its mind if the The King refers to Jesus or Elvis.