Gael García Bernal as Elvis
William Hurt as David
Pell James as Malerie Sandow
Paul Dano as Paul
Laura Harring as Twyla
Directed by James Marsh
Grim and dreary throughout, this depressing drama seems to serve very little purpose except to get in people’s faces basically par for the course for screenwriter Milo Addica.
After being discharge from the Navy, Elvis Valderez (Gael Garcia Bernal) decides to track down the father he never met, David Sandow (William Hurt). He finds him in Corpus Christie, Texas, the pastor of a Baptist church with a new family, but when Elvis is spurned by him, he turns his attention to his half-sister Malerie (Pell James). Unaware of her blood connection to Elvis, they begin a romance behind her father’s back.
Ah, yes, it’s the return of Milo Addica. You may remember him as the writer of “Monster’s Ball” or “Birth,” two heavy dramas that received mixed reactions due to their tough subject matters. His latest, a collaboration with documentary director James Marsh doing his first dramatic feature, isn’t much of a departure for Addica, dealing with even more things that will make people shuffle in their seats, evangelism and incest.
Before we get that far, we’re introduced to the players and the ultra-religious setting in which their story will take place. Over twenty years ago, David Sandow slept with Elvis’ mother, a Mexican maid, but then left her when she got pregnant. Now a respected man in his new community as a church pastor, he’s particularly proud of his son Paul (Paul Dano), displaying him prominently in front of the congregation any chance he gets. Knowing that if his flock and family learn about his illicit past, they might turn on him, David tells Elvis to leave town when he turns up out of the blue, which just angers Elvis even more. When Paul disappears, it’s assumed that he ran away due to his father’s pressures. Of course, we know what happened to himyou can take a wild guess and probably be rightbut Elvis is there to console Malerie and eventually to take Paul’s place and win over the acceptance of his father.
Who knows why it’s so hard to make a good movie based on a script written by Milo Addica, but “The King” doesn’t even have the visual style of “Birth” or the poignant relevance of “Monster’s Ball.” It’s not that it’s poorly made, as much as the fact that nothing really happens for long stretches, leading to slow drawn-out scenes. Then something happens and you think the story is going somewhere, but it doesn’t.
There’s certainly an operatic, almost Shakespearean nature to this story about a man looking for the love of his father, and those feelings turning to anger when they’re rebuked, but it’s never really clear if we’re supposed to sympathize with Elvis or condemn him for his actions, particularly when it comes to his incestuous relationship with Malerie. It wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t realize that Elvis knows what he’s doing is wrong by not telling Malerie the truth and using her feelings for him to manipulate her. When she does find out the truth, it’s even worse, and any chance of sympathizing with Elvis is quickly dashed. In many ways, the movie is almost the antithesis of the recent “Down in the Valley,” a similar dark drama about an intruder who causes problems when injecting him into a trouble family’s life, but in this case, the situations and emotions feel forced and contrived.
That’s not to completely write off the work done by director James Marsh, since he was able to pull decent performances from his cast, or at least give them the space to do what they do best. And you really can’t complain when you have actors the caliber of Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt either. Both of them do an okay job with their characters, although it’s hard to determine whether or not having to concentrate on his first English script takes away from Bernal’s usually solid acting. Despite shearing his hair short, Bernal isn’t particularly convincing. On the other hand, Hurt does another about face from his “History of Violence” gangster, sporting wicked sideburns, and really selling the fact that he’s a Baptist minister.
The true standout performance comes from lovely newcomer Pell James who takes the Amy Adams award for making the most out of the poorly-developed role of Elvis’ half-sister and love interest. Her finest moment comes when Malerie’s father announces to his congregation that Elvis is his son from an affair with another woman. The camera holds steady on her face as the revelation washes over her and her emotions start to flow. It’s similar to a scene with Nicole Kidman in “Birth” and the fact that the far less experienced actress could pull off such a powerful emotional transition makes you realize how much inherent talent there is at work in this actress.
After that pivotal moment, the film drags along until the end, a depressing and sour note that makes you feel gypped at the time you’ve wasted trying to justify the lead character’s actions. At least they don’t try to hit you over the head with the film’s ironic title.
The Bottom Line:
Maybe there are people out there who like Gael Garcia Bernal or William Hurt enough to sit through this depressing movie, but it seems like a pointless exercise in how much misery can be loaded onto the viewer before they finally crack and declare that they’ve had enough. It’s a shame, because there are some good performances despite the stale subject matter.