The King is always engaging to watch. Its gifted cast, magnificent cinematography and charged story demand attention. But when all is said and done (undone is more like it), the result disappoints. Even more disappointing is the fact that, absent some misguided decisions, here is terrific indie work (think In the Bedroom or The Door in the Floor) that deserves to make it and find an audience. British director James Marsh co-wrote his story with Milo Addica, who was Oscar-nominated as co-writer of another dark tale, Monster's Ball.
In The King, things grow darker and more intriguing by the minute. The always dependable Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Elvis, a guy just out of the Navy and spit onto civi-street in Texas without any prospects. Elvis' first order of business is to have a go at the nearest whorehouse. He then makes his way in the junky sedan he buys to a comfortable Corpus Christi neighborhood to confront David (William Hurt), the prosperous, right-wing Evangelical leader who fathered him with a whore back in his bad-boy days.
Elvis reconnects with dad near David's well-manicured lawn that bespeaks the reverend's reformed life as gung-ho preacher and all-American family man. At first, David forces tolerance but he ultimately rejects Elvis.
Elvis takes action. He courts David's attractive teen daughter Malerie (Pell James), who falls for Elvis big-time. Soon the two are cavorting in Elvis' dingy motel room. As Malerie strays, at least David has older offspring Paul (Paul Dano) to depend upon. Paul is a high-school senior and fervent Christian who pushes his brand of fundamentalism and intelligent design in the school corridors the way other kids push marijuana or concert tickets.
Eventually and inevitably, Malerie becomes pregnant and, although she doesn't know it, a victim of incest. When Paul gets wind of all this and threatens Elvis with exposure, Elvis murders him and dumps the body in a rural area where it will go missing. As Paul had recently had a big dust-up with dad, all assume that Paul has run away from home.
David fills the vacuum by bringing Elvis into the fold-religious and domestic. He welcomes his bastard son into the church and into the family home where Elvis becomes a full-time resident. But things grow ever more melodramatic. Blood may run thicker than water, but for some families, it just runs and runs.
This is a handsome, gripping production, with performances, script, cinematography and editing all top-of-the-line. Even Mexico's Bernal puts over a terrific Texas accent. But the many lapses hurt. Elvis' extreme pathology goes unexamined. And who can believe that Elvis and Malerie could carry on in the family house without being discovered? And how about that moment when Malerie learns she's carrying the child of a half-brother? And that ending...?
Beyond the carping, The King is good work that, with a little more effort, could have been so much better. The challenge now is to find its audience.