Gael Garcia Bernal
Director James Marsh has already explored the difficult relationship between a fundamentalist preacher and his son in his study of Marvin Gaye’s final years, Troubleman (1994); the curious appetites of a man named Elvis have already formed the subject of his The Burger and the King (1996); and the director’s interest in American gothic is plain to see in the feature-length Wisconsin Death Trip (1999).
So while The King may be Marsh’s first dramatic feature, it nonetheless draws on elements from over a decade’s worth of his work in documentaries.
Honorably discharged from the US Navy, young Elvis Valderez (Gael Garcia Bernal) heads south to Corpus Christi, Texas, in search of his heritage. There he catches up with his long lost father, David Sandow (William Hurt), a one-time hellraiser who has since reformed his wild ways, and become pastor in the local charismatic church.
At first there seems little space in David’s new life for a son born in sin to a Mexican prostitute, and the born-again evangelist makes it clear that he wants Elvis to stay away from his beautiful wife Twyla (Laura Harring) and his teenage children Malerie (Pell James) and Paul (Paul Dano).
Little by little, however, the returned son insinuates himself into his newfound family, bringing with him deception, perversion and irreversible transgression, and as he holds up a distorting mirror to their firmly held yet fragile values, he leaves a trail of bad, bad blood that leads straight to home.
Working with his co-writer Milo Addica (Monster’s Ball), Marsh takes a story type familiar from films like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Miike Takashi’s Visitor Q, as well as the thrillers Fatal Attraction, Poison Ivy, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and Down in the Valley – except that where usually this subgenre is characterised by a stranger whose arrival exposes the faultlines within a nuclear family, Marsh also throws religion into the mix, revealing the immense gulf between faith and modernity in contemporary America.
As David struggles to keep his sinful past and revivalist present separate, as Paul argues for Darwinism to be replaced by ‘intelligent design’ on the school’s science curriculum, as Malerie tries to reconcile chaste devotion with adolescent desire, and as Twyla wonders whether anybody believes anything anymore, all the Sandows’ anxieties, doubts and hypocrisies take on dramatic form with the advent of Elvis.
Whether he is a prodigal son, a tempting devil, an avenging angel, a sinner desperate to repent, an ousted king looking to retake his crown or just a chip off the old block, the scenarios that Elvis visits upon this family take on mythic, biblical proportions, as though all the pains and passions of the ancient scriptures had found a new incarnation in today’s world.
It is not only the subtlety of its dialectic between the sacred and the secular that saves The King from being just another run of the mill psychological chiller, but also Marsh’s restrained approach to his more genre-bound material.
The family melodrama smoulders so slowly here that it never quite erupts into the hysteria that a lesser director might have found irresistible, while Bernal plays Elvis with a sustained blankness, refusing to allow his quiet menace ever to become a snarling rage, and making it near impossible at any point to guess how far his character will go, so that his actions have an impact over and above anything that is actually seen on screen.
In the meantime, cinematographer Eigil Bryld plays a skilful game of hide-and-seek with the film’s scenes of sex and violence, teasing viewers with events that remain just beyond the camera’s reach, including a climactic mobile single take through the Sandow’s house and garden that would impress Hitchcock with its mastery of suspense.
Add to this William Hurt acting very much against type (with Texan twang and Morgan Spurlock-style handlebar moustache), the ethereal Pell James shaping up as a young Scarlett Johansson, a set of moral challenges to the Christian notion of forgiveness that defy any kind of easy resolution, and some touches of wicked surrealism, and The King begins to look like a new myth for our times, prickly and uncomfortable enough to linger in the mind.