Starring: Gael García Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James, Laura Harring, Paul Dano. Rated R.
Following closely on the heels of Down In the Valley, an eerily similar tale of romance undone by sociopathic rage,
comes James Marsh’s The King, which follows the vicious exploits of a young drifter named – what else?
Despite his initially calm demeanor and disarming smile, Elvis (Gael García Bernal) soon proves to be a devastating force,
as troubled as he is unpredictable. After his honorable discharge from the Navy, he heads to Corpus Christi in search of the
father he’s never known. He finds him with relative ease, but their reunion isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Elvis’
father, David (William Hurt), is now a pastor and family man who dismisses his illegitimate son as a mistake made “before
I became a Christian.” Clearly, David wants no part of his youthful indiscretions, but Elvis has a different plan.
It’s not a pleasant one. Elvis uses his deceptive charms to seduce his virginal, 16-year-old half-sister, Malerie (Pell
James), whose innocence is stripped away in quick and brutal fashion. A more sinister fate awaits her brother, Paul (Paul
Dano), who seems eager to follow in his father’s pious footsteps. Elvis concocts a ghoulish plan to take Paul’s
place in the family, oblivious to the fact that his acceptance can’t be won with violence, if at all.
So much has been made of The King’s perceived attack on Christianity that few critics have bothered to judge
the film on its merits, and that’s a shame. Sure, David is the very personification of hypocrisy, a smug family man
who champions the Good Book while burying the inconvenient details of his past. But he is merely one character, and not necessarily
an indictment of a religious culture. And though David is an unmistakably flawed, domineering father, Hurt infuses him with
enough humanity to make him sympathetic. He seems to understand his character’s inherent contradictions, masterfully
portraying a man whose intense fundamentalism is oftentimes at odds with his basic goodness.
Yet the key to The King has to be Bernal. In just his second English-language film, he delivers a chilling performance
that perfectly captures the complexities of Elvis, whose intentions are constantly in question. He can be cheerful and charming
when he wants to be, and his uncanny calm does little to foreshadow the atrocities of which he is capable. But even early
on, there are subtle signs that something is amiss, and Bernal uses them to keep us on edge. It’s that unpredictability
that lends The King an air of almost palpable tension, making it that much more shocking when the horror unfolds.