“The King” isn’t a particularly good film, but it is a perversely fascinating one. Co-written by Milo Addica, who was one of the scripters of the unnerving, powerful “Monster Ball,” in collaboration with director James Marsh, who made the unsettling documentary “Wisconsin Death Trip,” it’s the tale of Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young man just out of the Navy, who travels to Corpus Christi, Texas, to confront the father who’s never acknowledged him–a fundamentalist minister, David Sandow (William Hurt). After the preacher rebuffs him (at least as he sees it), Elvis undertakes what amounts to a stealth campaign of retribution against Sandow and his family, wife Twyla (Laura Harring), son Paul (Paul Dano) and daughter Malerie (Pell James). While it wouldn’t be fair to reveal the precise forms his schemes take (suffice it to say that things end bizarrely), it may be noted that Malerie is a pretty but clearly inexperienced young girl eager to embrace some boy’s attention, while Paul is a rigid believer who wants to bring intelligent design into the high school before departing for college, sings his own songs at his father’s services, and is unlikely to take kindly to anyone who disturbs the propriety of their household.
There’s a creepy undercurrent to the apparent normalcy on display in the Corpus Christi depicted in “The King”–a dichotomy reflected in Eigil Bryld’s cinematography, which alternates between almost offhanded naturalism and a dreamy moodiness. And the very name of the city in which the story is situated, as well as the churchly setting, indicate that it’s intended to be taken as a none-too-subtle religious parable, a replay of Scriptural stories of human weakness, temptation and the quiet power of evil. A weirdly jaunty musical score by Max Avery Lichtenstein accentuates the sense of emotional displacement.
That’s all well and good, and the film does manage to be quite disturbing, with one burst of violence that’s genuinely shocking in its understated realism. But most of the success is on the surface; the picture doesn’t manage to penetrate very deeply, especially in the two main characters, and ultimately it just fails to hang together. Bernal is suitably intense (and his American accent is superb), but the opaque writing leaves him unable fully to explore the sly malevolence Elvis hides beneath his boyishly charming exterior. And though Hurt sinks his teeth into his role, he never really carries off the preacher’s blend of Bible-thumping charismatic, family tyrant and soulful penitent. Nor does Harring convinces as Mrs. Sandow, who degenerates rather perfunctorily into a sort of catatonia of grief. On the other hand, James is affecting as a young girl trapped between a father’s expectations and her own rebelliousness, and Dano makes Paul, who might have been an irritatingly simplistic cartoon, a figure of some complexity and poignance.
“The King”–an apparent allusion to Presley, though nothing is ever made of any connection between the singer and Bernal’s Elvis–is much too fragmented and unpleasant a film to recommend. But it will hold your attention, in spite or (indeed, in part because of) its imperfections.