The story of a veritable devil who comes to test and destroy a family of faith, “The King” is a noxious film morally and an aggravating one dramatically. Co-produced and co-written by Milo Addica,” who co-wrote the estimable “Monster’s Ball” and “Birth,” and the first narrative feature from “Wisconsin Death Trip” documaker James Marsh, ambitious indie pic would more accurately have been titled “Texas Death Trip,” given the insidious predilections of the would-be protagonist. Despite the presence of heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal atop the cast, this promises to be a major turn-off for audiences in all markets.
“The King” shares with “Wisconsin” a fascination with the suspect and/or risible aspects of American life, with attention this time focused on Christians living in the aptly selected Corpus Christi, Texas, and a snake who enters the garden there. Filmmakers profess to having been influenced by such classics as “The Night of the Hunter,” “Psycho,” “Badlands” and “Blue Velvet,” and while there are certainly crucial elements of the first and skeleton-in-the-closet aspects of the last, they should be so lucky as to ever have this film mentioned in such company from an artistic point of view.
Title can only be explained by the fact that Bernal, speaking flawless American, plays a young man named Elvis, which in turn prompts the notation that Marsh a decade ago made the docu “The Burger and the King,” about Elvis Presley’s eating habits. Upon his discharge from the Navy, Elvis heads for Corpus Christi and announces to local preacher man David Sandow (William Hurt) that he is Sandow’s unknown bastard son via a liaison more than 20 years before.
Pastor Sandow reasonably asks Elvis to call him soon so they can speak before he breaks the news to his wife and two teenage children. But Elvis never calls, choosing instead to stalk and quickly deflower Sandow’s virginal 16-year-old daughter Malerie (Pell James), without informing her that he’s her half-brother.
This is just the overture for the symphony of hurt and cruelty Elvis visits upon the Sandows. In very short order, Elvis gets Malerie pregnant. Then, after her brother Paul (Paul Dano) spots the seducer sneaking out of the house one night, the staunchly religious young man follows Elvis to challenge him and tell him never to see his sister again, only to be stabbed to death for his trouble.
Successfully covering up all traces of the crime, Elvis now befriends the father to the point that he is invited to lodge in Paul’s room while the latter is considered “missing.” With this, it looks as though “The King” has been set up as a modern Cain and Abel story, with Elvis determined to test the limits of his father’s Christian ability to forgive sin. Alas, just when it doesn’t seem possible, the story pushes much, much further into transgressive territory, to the point where its nihilistic attitude surpasses the provocative to become unjustifiably ugly and pointless.
Stance might have been theoretically defensible if the script had explored Elvis’ psychological or emotional condition, but pic takes no interest in that. Sure, he was filed away as a youthful indiscretion by his father, but there’s never a suggestion that this is what motivates Elvis to do such evil; his dad even embraces him as part of the family after a decent interval, despite the distress it causes his wife (Laura Harring).
The film, then, like its central character, emerges as entirely unpalatable, despite attentive work by the actors, notably by Dano as the upright son and especially by James as the daughter completely unprepared to cope with the Gael force that hits her. Visual style occupies an uneasy middle ground between attempted atmospheric emphasis and docu-drama intensity.