The King (2005)
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After being discharged from the Navy, Elvis (Bernal) sets out on a journey to meet the father he's never known. His father, David Sandow (William Hurt), is a devout Christian and a pastor at a local church in Texas. David rejects his son, for he sees him as an illegitimate son born out of wedlock during a time in his life he's chosen to forget. Elvis is told to stay away from his estranged father and family, but unknowing that Elvis is her half-brother, 16-year-old Malerie gives her virginity to him and embarks on a passionate relationship. But in a small Texas community like the one in Corpus Christi, secrets have their way of rising to the top and bubbling over. And for David and his family, many unexpected and devastating twists of fate await them.
A low-budget effort from British director James Marsh, 'The King' comes through and finds its footing thanks to a compelling script. What's funny about a film like 'The King' is how it doesn't immediately pull you in, but slowly wraps you in its web of brooding darkness. And before you know it, you're smothered by it. It's the kind of film that will find its way into your head long after it's over with. It raises some provoking issues, including the dark side of religion and how one simple choice can have a destructing and devastating chain of results. But the most interesting question remains, can a person be born evil? Was Elvis, who under the Christian perspective was born in sin, a damned child from birth? The viewer watches the character worm his way into the Sandow family, they watch him descend into evil, all until it's too late. No turning back. Can anyone truly 'get right with the Lord'? Are Elvis' intentions pure damnation and destruction, or is he somehow seeking redemption?
'The King' is filled with many unexpected and unpleasant twists. Yet with each turn, Marsh's directorial skills become that much more impressive. It's gritty and edgy, and driven by exceptional performances. For years now Gael Garcia Bernal has been the star of many (excellent) underground Spanish-speaking films, including 'Y Tu Mama Tambien', 'Bad Education, and 'Amores Perros', but perhaps is best known for his powerful role as Che Guevera in 'The Motorcycle Diaries'. And as he begins to enter American cinema (he stars in this year's best film, 'The Science of Sleep', in which he masters English and French in addition to speaking Spanish), his choice of character-driven roles suggests that the independent route may suit him better than the lure of Hollywood and special effects. His boyish charm makes him the perfect choice for the role of Elvis, his charm bleeds through the screen. Even William Hurt's eyebrow raising character, based off of John Mark Byers from Paradise Lost, is powerful and compelling to watch.
'The King' remains one of 2006's best undiscovered gems. It may not be what you'd call entertaining, but you'll find it difficult to look away. Raw and natural, 'The King' is a film told by characters and not by a camera, and sometimes that makes all the difference. James Marsh proves himself to be a capable and very talented director, who takes command of this heavy film and turns it into an experience as engrossing as it is uneasy. It's dark and deeply disturbing, yet very intelligent, and 'The King' indeed takes the crown.
This movie reminded me of Woody Allen's Matchpoint. Different stories altogether, but with the general sense and feeling of incredible luck, and evilness amongst man. You can't help but wonder that each one of us have the propensity to do evil, and just what might exactly push our button to commit sin. Lust, revenge, and pride clearly on display in James Marsh's The King.
There are various Kings here, the first which is most obvious, the main protagonist's name Elvis Valderez, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Recently discharged from the Navy, he's on a trip to Texas to look up the father he never knew, who turned out to be a pastor, clearly already having moved on from his mother. The other notable King here, is pertaining to religion, given that Jesus Christ is acknowledged by Christians to be the King of Kings. I thought William Hurt put up a credible performance as the strict Pastor David Sandow, who now serves a little community, with possibly a happy family befitting a good Christian family.
And perchance it is the ghost from the past, his illegitimate son Elvis, who's now the devil in his midst of them, slowly bringing down the facade and hypocrisy surrounding the Sandows, and exposing them for who they truly are. It's quite a dark movie, and made possible so as the devil has an innocent, possibly angelic face (thanks to Gael), and little do you know the kind of evil that lurks around. Which probably makes it all the more dangerous as the saying goes, you know the person, but not what is in his heart - the motives, if ulterior.
Having to say more will most likely spoil the entire movie. I liked the pacing that the story took, on having it all laid out methodically. At times, you question Elvis' intent, if he's truly aware of the repercussions of what he's doing. You might want to argue that love knows no bounds, but there certainly are some clear markers and blinkers to warn you to stay away, at all costs.
The great acting makes The King extremely watchable. William Hurt, as already mentioned, plays his pained pastor with plenty of skeletons in his closet, to a T. Pell James as his daughter Malerie, brings about a fresh faced ingénue to her role, with innocence written all over. For fans of Little Miss Sunshine, Paul Dano has more lines of dialogue here, and even exercises his vocal cords in singing two songs. His role as son Paul is contrasted against Elvis the illegitimate son - one devoted to God, the other the devil himself, one living his life with a cause, the other living his without any aim, except probably to groove along waiting for acceptance.
There are many releases this week (last count was nine), but The King ranks up there amongst the much watch.
There are moments of shocking, unexpected violence and you are always left with a nasty taste in the mouth but at the same time, you are never quite sure which way the film is going to turn. In some respects it's a bit like Pasolini's "Theorem" but when I spoke to the director at the Dublin Film Festival he said he had never seen "Theorem", (but surely he must have known what it was about?), but did admit to being influenced in part by Dennis Potter's "Brimstone and Treacle".
It's a deeply unpleasant little picture but it is very well directed, (it feels unpolished, unfinished, rough around the edges which is just as it should be), and both Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt as his preacher father are superb. Bernal is like some beautiful, rotten fallen angel. Is he seeking redemption or total damnation? Hurt, too long in the doldrums, is on a run at the moment. With this, and Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" under his belt, he is very much back on form. See it certainly, but don't expect to be entertained.
The performance of Gael Garcia Bernal is solid and that of Pell James wonderful. In my opinion the two played really well together, as did William Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal. I went ahead and watched this film without knowing anything in beforehand (I went to the cinema and chose a name from the list) which I think was appropriate for this type of film. Having known a lot in beforehand could perhaps have made it more predictable and less good. The film is interesting also in the fact that scenes depicting what in reality would be very morbid are made beautiful, a fact that pulls the viewer into the lovely high where beautiful film-making makes you want to be a writer yourself. This is not something you'll want to miss out on!
Yet I did find myself enraptured with it, and that was mainly due to the performances. Spanish heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal (Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros) simply captivates as Elvis, a recently discharged Marine who heads to Texas to reconnect with the father he never knew. But his father, fundamentalist preacher David Sandow (William Hurt) has no intentions of welcoming his illegitimate child, born out of wedlock to a Mexican woman "before he was saved", into his current family. That's when the cold, calculating Elvis sets his plan into motion, one that involves seducing his 16-year-old stepsister (Pell James in a remarkable per-formance),eliminating his bothersome stepbrother, and eventually bringing the entire family to an untimely end.
As I said, tough subject matter to like, but the engrossing performances make the difficult topics easier to digest. Bernal's take on the sadistic psychopath role is refreshing, as he uses his good looks, disarming smile and smoldering eyes to convey sympathy that belies his intentions. Hurt has rarely been better as the preacher who uses religion to cover his sins; his turnaround with Elvis after his other son "disappears" is alarming and speaks volumes about his character's true self. James is magnetic playing the innocent waif who falls for the conniving trick played by Elvis, and when she learns the truth her reaction nearly brought me to tears. Even the underdeveloped role by Laura Herring (Mulholland Drive) as the wife carries weight, although she was used much too little.
All in all a fascinating look at some difficult subjects that was made watchable by the actors involved. And while I cannot recommend the film, it has some attributes that will make it difficult to forget.