It's clear by now that British director James Marsh regards America as a vaguely amusing madhouse -- a reliably primitive, thoroughly benighted backwater infested with dangerous grotesques. He is, after all, the fellow who gave us the supercilious TV documentary The Burger & The King: The Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley and a morbid piece of business called Wisconsin Death Trip, which sought to show us how -- if not why -- the twisted citizens of a quiet Midwestern town went on a binge of suicide, arson and murder back in the 1890s. For smug condescension, this wallow in obscure social history was hard to beat.
In his first fiction film, The King (co-written with Monster's Ball author Milo Addica), Marsh goes slumming in the bland suburbs of Corpus Christi. There, without even trying, he discovers a stern cowboy preacher named David Sandow (an almost unrecognizable William Hurt), who has a handlebar mustache sprouting from his face and a nasty streak of fascism deep inside him; and a drifty young punk named, well, Elvis (Mexican star Gael Garca Bernal, spouting accent-perfect American English), who pops into town after a three-year hitch in the navy to announce that he's the good reverend's illegitimate son. Dear old Dad, if that's what he really is, wants nothing to do with this unexpected news (bad for business), and, once thwarted, Elvis undertakes his own reign of terror -- seducing his clueless, 16-year-old half-sister, Malerie (Pell James); stabbing his guitar-strumming, sweetly sanctimonious half-brother, Paul (Paul Dano); and otherwise playing the snake set loose in the garden. The film seems to take as much amoral pleasure in its protagonist's gory misdeeds as he does. Evidently, the self-righteous Sandows all have it coming.
By all accounts, Marsh has absorbed classic crazy-killer thrillers like Psycho, The Night of the Hunter and Badlands, but The King isn't likely to join such esteemed company. The movie's atmospheric surfaces are just right, even hypnotic -- the sun-scorched strip malls of a South Texas port town, stunned rapture on the faces of the Reverend Sandow's congregation, the sickening slap of a severed deer's head dumped into a plastic bucket when the Sandow men return from a bow hunt. But Marsh and Addica make too easy a target of Texas-style Christian fundamentalism, and in their zeal to combine incest, religious hypocrisy and bloody murder in a purse of melodrama, they forget all about motive. The assorted outbursts of the troubled Elvis, whom we behold early on with a rose clenched in his teeth, may be triggered by the competing urges to torture and win over his putative father. But there's no workable way to fill out this blank slate. Is Elvis an inverted idealist? A dead soul? An outright lunatic? Is he actually capable of love? Forget about the attractions of dramatic ambiguity or the movie's insistent Cain-and-Abel echoes: Marsh simply doesn't give us enough to go on, emotionally or psychologically, to get a fix on Elvis. By the time the credits roll, we understand no more about him than we did in the beginning, except that he represents some sort of amorphous evil, full of con and bereft of conscience. So what, The King carelessly asserts. Shit happens.
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Given that failing, the blustering evangelist is the more compelling character, if only marginally. The harsh patriarch of a rigid Christian household (son Paul dutifully campaigns for the addition of intelligent design to his school's curriculum), the Reverend Sandow struts around in camouflage fatigues and a dirty straw cowboy hat in his off time, but beneath his chicken-fried machismo, Hurt convinces us that he's genuinely tormented by his sinful past and genuinely anguished about man's capacity for forgiveness. If, in the wake of young Paul's mysterious disappearance, the Rev affects an uneasy alliance with Elvis, we also grasp that he's trying to make peace with his own demons. Bernal, star of The Motorcycle Diaries and Amores Perros, enjoys no such advantage. The magnetic young actor gives it his all, but Elvis remains an unfinished picture, a kind of nihilist caricature. If James Marsh sees this repugnant creature as the embodiment of irrational American violence -- and it's hard to avoid that inference -- the filmmaker at least has a responsibility to get some of the guy's ethical, moral and mental details right. After all, even bastards deserve a square deal in the end.