This is not like Budweiser the king of beers, or Brendan Babish, also the king of beers, but king as in Elvis, King of Rock 'n' Roll.
The devil made me do it.
Following a string of successful documentaries—on subjects as varied as the cuisine of Elvis Presley to a homeless soccer team in New York City—James Marsh makes his narrative feature debut with The King, a dark story about a young man in search of his father.
Facts of the Case
After getting discharged from the Navy, Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal, The Science of Sleep) heads to a Corpus Christi church, where his father—whom he has never met—preaches. Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt, A History of Violence) has a loyal congregation, two overachieving children, and an obedient wife, and wants nothing to do with this strange young man born out of a regretted fling with a Hispanic prostitute. With seemingly nowhere to go, Elvis rents a room in Corpus Christi, finds a job, and begins dating Sandow's unsuspecting daughter, Malerie (Pell James, Broken Flowers). While Elvis's ultimate intentions are unclear, it is obvious that he is looking for trouble, and that's just what he finds.
The King is a difficult film to write about. Not because of the film's violent, sexually deviant, and heretical subject matter; in fact, those will be fun themes to discuss with your friends after the movie's over. The problem is that about a half hour in, the film takes a sudden, surprisingly dark turn, and to discuss this, or any events derived thereof, would lessen the element of surprise, which is one of The King's greatest assets.
However, I can say that this is one of the most effectively paced thrillers I've seen in years. The action unfolds naturally, and the tension increases slowly but steadily so that the audience can take an almost voyeuristic pleasure in watching the nooses slowly tighten around each character's neck. As in horror movies, we are able to understand the dire repercussions while the characters blindly walk headlong into danger; as in good horror movies, you will be tempted to talk to the screen, to warn young Malerie Pasdow, to plead with Elvis, to admonish Pastor David. The brilliance of The King is how, while every character's actions only entrench them deeper and deeper into disintegration, their personalities are so well established, in such effective broad strokes, that even extreme behavior never seems contrived.
Of course, much of the credit for this must also go to the actors. Though William Hurt got an Oscar nomination last year for A History of Violence, he gives a much more nuanced performance here. He could have easily gone over the top as a small-town, Southern preacher—and in the day of the Mega-Church that must have been tempting. While The King has been criticized for having anti-Christian themes, Hurt imbues the pastor with both the best (honesty, atonement) and worst (intolerance, hypocrisy) affectations of contemporary Christianity. Additionally, both Pell James and Paul Dano provide superb supporting work as the pastor's children. Dano in particular—who significantly raised his profile in this summer's Little Miss Sunshine—does an excellent job as a young Christian foot soldier. Like the pastor, this is a role that could have easily devolved into bulging-eyed religious mania, but Dano plays Paul as an earnest and respectful young man who's quietly passionate about Jesus.
Of course, the lion's share of credit must go to Bernal, not only for delivering a subdued, eerie performance, but for even taking on the role of Elvis. Bernal is a hot young property in Hollywood, and has already earned plenty of indie cred by starring in the oversexed Y tu mama tambien. My guess is his agent would love him to cash in by taking on a big-budget action role—something along the lines of Aquaman. Playing a lecherous pizza delivery boy in a violent and challenging independent movie is far from a surefire way to achieve superstardom. However, with a recent string of intriguing movies—The King, The Science of Sleep, and Babel—Bernal is proving to be an actor in search of great work, instead of a great paycheck. While this movie probably did little to advance his career, it is still one of the best films of the year and something he should be proud of.
Th!nkFilm has put out a pretty good package considering this is an independent film that did very little business. The DVD includes three deleted scenes, a brief rehearsal, and commentary from Milo Addica, who co-wrote the movie, and James Marsh, who wrote the film with Addica and also directed. The two spend much of their commentary explaining the film's rich subtext, which I certainly appreciate more than discussions of lighting and whining about low budgets. Additionally, the extra scenes reveal an aspect of Elvis's personality that is largely unseen in the film, though—while it is interesting to learn more about this inscrutable character—I think it was wise to cut them.
When I saw The King at the Philadelphia Film Festival earlier this year it was clearly the best among the 12 movies I watched over those two weeks. However, once the audience ballot results for 229 films screened were released, I was shocked to see The King in the bottom third. Then the Jury Prizes were announced, and The King was awarded Best American Independent Film. This schizophrenic response was to be indicative of the critical coverage of the movie when it received a brief theatrical release in the spring; sporadically interspersed among the largely mediocre reviews were exuberant accolades. Sadly, these were not enough to generate much interest in The King, and it disappeared from the theaters so fast that if you were sick that week you probably missed it.
Still I'm telling you this is a great film. Obviously, it's not for everyone—if you have a problem with violence, then feel free to skip it—but this is a movie that deserves an audience, and I'm happy to do my part helping it find one on DVD.
As O.J. Simpson said, "Absolutely 100 percent not guilty."
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Producer Milo Addica and Writer/Director James Marsh
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