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With: Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James, Laura Harring, Paul Dano
Written by: James Marsh, Milo Addica
Directed by: James Marsh
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual activity involving a teen, some violence and language
Running Time: 105
Date: 05/15/2005

The King (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Twist of Faith

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's possible to imagine film criticism as one giant thumb that points up or down on each new movie; individual voices often get lost. And certainly there is a consensus when it comes to simple movies like Brokeback Mountain, Water, United 93 and The Da Vinci Code, movies with a single layer and a single intention.

Lately the big thumb seems to favor those movies over more multi-layered items. Indeed, if a film asks more than the most rudimentary contemplation, the thumb tends to become impatient and turn downward. Recent films like The New World, Art School Confidential and Down in the Valley have suffered as a result. (The thumb ground them out like so many ants.) And unfortunately, James Marsh's new film The King seems destined to join them. Dense with religious allegory, The King is so bizarre and so sly even the Catholic Church didn't know whether to ban it or not.

Rising star Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también) stars as Elvis -- not the fabled rock singer, but a puppyish Naval recruit, newly released from duty. He's so earnest and cuddly that an off-duty hooker decides to go back on the clock for him. (It's his first stop off the boat.) After buying a cool used convertible, he finds his real destination, the stomping grounds of his birth father. Once a lowlife who slept with a Mexican prostitute, David Sandow (William Hurt) has now found religion and become pastor of his local Corpus Christi, Texas, church.

The pastor's first reaction upon seeing his illegitimate offspring is: get outta Dodge and never darken my door again. The Pastor has a new family now, thanks very much. His silently suffering wife Twyla (Laura Harring, Mulholland Drive), his budding teen daughter Malerie (Pell James, from Broken Flowers) and his pride and joy, Paul (Paul Dano, L.I.E.) attend his weekly sermons without complaint. Paul even plays in the church's Christian rock group and plans to become a pastor himself one day, though his dad gets upset when he deviates from the Holy Writ in his songwriting. And for added complexity, the unwanted Elvis -- disregarding partial blood ties -- begins romancing Malerie (she does not know of Elvis' connection to her family).

The King takes a few unexpected twists, and at the risk of leaving off with an incomplete explanation of the movie's riches, I'd rather avoid spoiling the movie. Let us just say that the town's name, "Corpus Christi" (the body of Christ) comes into it. Indeed Marsh, who directed the bizarre, beautiful Wisconsin Death Trip (1999), mixes his metaphors to peculiar effect. The title The King refers both to Elvis Presley and to Jesus. But just who is the King? Bernal's Elvis, or Paul, the dutiful son? Have the sins of the father caused these characters to be expelled from Eden? Which "brother" is Cain and which is Abel? Where does the devil come in?

Perhaps a Biblical scholar could parse out these various threads, but the sly way in which Marsh and Bernal coax us through is enough for the rest of us. Bernal has a way of seeming comfortably nervous, twiddling his fingertips or struggling to remove a cowboy boot, but all the while in total control. He has a disarming smile, with a couple of jagged teeth (like Kirsten Dunst's) that knock him down from "movie star" to "regular guy." In his love scenes with Malerie, he comes across both tender and pushy, both rough and caring. The result is that Elvis is a complete cipher; you'd invite him to dinner and trust him completely, but you might not realize just how little you know about him. We're never sure just how much of the movie's arc he has planned, or how much he regrets.

But Marsh makes this quite compelling with his deliberate, tricky pace. He continually leaves off a scene before it seems finished, or continues a scene after it seems finished, and each turn is a surprise. Perplexingly, the giant thumb has thus far labeled The King as a brain-dead satire taking easy potshots at organized religion. The movie does indeed use organized religion as an anchor to arrange its complex, intertwined Biblical model, but no potshots are fired. The movie's only crime is ambiguity, and in allowing its audience to take away what they will. Even more puzzling and intriguing than anything else in the film is its ending; it clocks out with a question, unanswered, a plea for forgiveness. Perhaps this is Marsh's point. We're all mixed up in one big passion play here, good, evil and indifferent. Are we to nurse vengeance and hatred against one another (as generally happens in real life), or is everyone, regardless of their crimes and color, entitled to God's love?

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