Gael García Bernal
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The King (2005)
19th May 06
A young Marine, recently discharged from the Navy, returns to his childhood home in Corpus Christi, Texas, looking for a man he believes is his father. When that man, now a Pastor in the local Church, initially spurns him, he ingratiates himself into the family with explosive consequences
Known for his highly acclaimed documentaries such as the eerie Wisconsin Death Trip-, British director James Marsh has teamed up with the provocative American screenwriter Milo Addica (Monster's Ball, Birth) for this, his first feature-length film. Together they have made a movie that begins as a Badlands-influenced rites of passage tale and ends as a truly nightmarish quasi-religious parable - a long, dark journey into the heart of the US Bible belt.
21-year-old American Hispanic Elvis Sandow (Gael Garcia Bernal) is honourably discharged from the US Marines after three years of service and tells his shipmates he is ‘going home’. Home in this case is Corpus Christi, Texas, but its quite clear from the beginning that Elvis has never actually been there before.
Instead he’s on his way to meet a man who he believes is his father, David Westow (William Hurt) the former lover of his deceased Mexican mother. Westow is now a pastor in the local Pentecostal church and is not in any hurry to confront his past, having turned his back on his former ways to live a good Christian existence, complete with loving wife (Laura Harring from Mulholland Drive) and happy family. While David accepts that Elvis may well be telling the truth, his Christian sense of forgiveness certainly does not extend to welcoming the boy with open arms. He informs Elvis that the liaison was a result of a wayward life before he found Jesus and that he will meet with him, but warns him to stay away from his new family.
Elvis, however, has already met the Pastor's 16-year-old daughter Malerie (Pell James, channelling spooky Sissy Spacek vibes). Meanwhile David’s son Paul - a bible-student and talented musician – has just found out that his crusade to make Christian studies part of his local schools curriculum has been rejected and needs an outlet for his righteous fury. When he discovers that Elvis and his sister are getting a little too close, he decides to intervene. Elvis’ reaction to this – and the events that follow - turn out to have devastating consequences for the whole family.
To reveal any more about The King would be an absolute scandal, as one of the film’s chief pleasures is how effectively writer Marsh and Addica dovetail an explosive, mischievously transgressive narrative into standard US indie melodramatics. Make no mistake, this is a ferociously cruel film, one that is going to test audiences in all kinds of interesting ways.
During the film’s premiere at Cannes, Marsh and Addica were accused of being nihilists, and one industry magazine went as far as to call The King “morally noxious” and “entirely unpalatable”. I’m not sure about that, although without revealing any more about Bernal's shadowy central figure or where his journey takes him - and it’s to the very heart of the family in every way - if the film ever plays in the Bible belt they should anticipate a lynching for their troubles.
For much of its running time though, The King keeps things strictly low key, exploring the burgeoning relationship between Elvis and Marlerie with a tender sensitivity, played out against as a backdrop of woozy sub-Mallick visuals. The film actually starts to feel a little too relaxed before the encounter midway between Elvis and Paul turns the narrative on its head. Marsh handles his first fiction film with real confidence, never resorting to cheap melodrama and poaching from a range of influences that are as unmistakable as they are unimpeachable – the aforementioned Badlands, Laughton’s spectral Night of the Hunter, and Blue Velvet. He sustains a mood recognisable to those familiar with such movies - a world that Marsh himself describes as “a sort of heightened realism - of the familiar rendered strange and threatening and characterised by a brooding atmosphere of anxiety and violence."
The script’s refusal to provide easy answers to its own difficult questions – coupled with the ambiguity of Bernal's Elvis – opens the narrative up for a multitude of interpretations. The current vogue for reading every film that is semi-critical of US religious mores as a response to the Bush era will no doubt be trotted out (despite the fact that the script was written before recent American misadventures). There is equal potency in reading the film as a modern day riff on Cane and Abel, with the Elvis character a direct challenge to Christian fundamentalism, challenging the whole idea of faith, redemption and the forgiveness of evil.
The performances throughout are excellent. Bernal, in his first English speaking role, continues to live up to the fantastically high standards that he has set himself as an actor. Elvis is, right up until the very end, an unknowable enigma whose motives are never made explicit, even during a dramatically shocking third act. Hurt - who, with his gut and handlebar moustache looks like Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock if he’d been on the burger diet for 30 years as opposed to 30 days – is outstanding as David, investing a character that could all too easily be caricatured with well-deep levels of intensity and regret.
Lord only knows (no pun intended) how the distributors are going to market The King. As a gothic tinged, grimly tragic, coming of age tale? A disturbing, contemporary religious parable? A meditation on karma? It’s going to a damn hard sell, however you look at it. For me, that’s good news for film fans if not for distributors. One thing is certain, Marsh and Addica have made a film that is liable to disturb or offend just about everybody to some degree, and that can only be a good thing. All hail to The King.