Screenwriter Milo Addica likes his themes big and biblical (or Greek): Death. Redemption. Rebirth. "The King," the third film he’s scripted (after 2001’s "Monster’s Ball" and 2004’s "Birth") has a similarly grand wingspan: Directed by doc veteran James March, the film is about a Southern Gothic tale about David, a born-again preacher (William Hurt) who’s visited by a ghost from his less-than-righteous past, a son he fathered and abandoned in Mexico who’ll end up offering him a near-impossible test of his beliefs.
We never see that resolution: as the title implies, this film is about faith (and about family, in a sense that approaches Oedipal), but it’s also about Elvis â€” that’s the unfortunate name of David’s cast-off son, played by Gael GarcÃa Bernal, who finishes a stint in the Navy and sets off to find his father, and whose blithe efforts to insinuate himself into the family (ultimately destroying it) are the film’s focus. David has made a place and a name for himself in Corpus Christi, TX, heading up the kind of church with a lighted marquee outside to attract passers-by from the busy road and living in immaculate suburban bliss with his serene wife (Laura Harring) and their teenage son (Paul Dano) and daughter (Pell James). David’s not pleased when Elvis shows up when he’s with his other unsuspecting children, and gives him the brush-off, but the insouciant Elvis is not dissuaded, getting himself a cheap room in town, a job delivering pizzas, and a girlfriend â€” Malerie, his half-sister.
Ah, incest. Ah, eventual multiple murders. Elvis is our guide towards and the effector of inevitable tragedy, but he’s a complete enigma, ever earnest and unruffled, even when he’s faced with Malerie ill with the knowledge that he knew they were related before he took her virginity. His actions are inexplicable â€” he’s not malicious; he seems to be beyond any conscious morality. Is he the embodiment of unatoned-for sins come home to roost? Is he, er, Satan? Has he merely been studying up on his Sophocles? If Elvis is a little creepy, he’s also appallingly charming and guileless (and, as he’s played by Bernal, extremely nice to look at).
But for all of the dread the story entails, "The King" drifts by on unexpectedly blissful scenes of beauty â€” Elvis and Malerie going wading in the river on a sun-drenched afternoon; the doe-eyed Paul Dano, in the lights of a stage, delivering a heart-stoppingly earnest speech on the wrongs of the theory of evolution. Marsh is content to sometimes simply turn the soundtrack up and let a song carry a scene along, a device that can work deliriously well even if it seems at odds with the script’s heavy hand.
"The King" opens today in New York and LA.
+ "The King" (IMDb)