For Elvis Valderez, being a bastard sucks. While his whore mother wastes away in some sleazy brothel, his dad gets born again, moves to a posh suburb and starts a lily-white family of Christian rockers who protest their school’s policy of teaching evolution. Meanwhile, Elvis does his time in the Navy, learns a thing or two about killing people, and spends years plotting his revenge (after banging his teenage half-sister).
So goes the story in The King, a devious little tale of one particular bastard’s twisted idea of redemption. The movie bears more than a passing resemblance to another recent indie psycho-thriller, Down in the Valley, in which an unhinged Ed Norton romances a not-so-naïve Evan Rachel Wood. The King is more concise and overtly biblical in its storytelling, but it lacks the artistry and the powerhouse performances of Valley. Still, if you’re in a righteously cynical, fuck-the-world kind of mood — or if you’re merely interested in seeing Mexican hottie Gael García Bernal in a crew cut and a sailor’s uniform — the film might strike a chord.
Things start out in horror-stalker mode, with the just-discharged Elvis (Bernal) tracking down his Baptist father David (William Hurt) in southern Texas, where he presides over a fundamentalist congregation. Elvis makes the shocking announcement that he’s the product of David’s pre-righteous days; David doesn’t deny it, but also he doesn’t reveal this past indiscretion to his high school-age children, Paul (Paul Dano) and Malerie (Pell James). He forbids Elvis from making any contact with his new family, which of course drives him to seduce the unwitting Malerie for a little keep-it-in-the-family fornication.
The script, by director James Marsh and Monster’s Ball writer Milo Addica, keeps piling on the ironies. Elvis insinuates himself into the family further, jockeying for position as David’s real favorite son, all the while maintaining a secret romance with his clueless half-sister. And if you’re wondering why Elvis keeps fondling his military-issue rifle, you’ll get an answer to that question soon enough.
Nothing in The King is entirely convincing. The characters are always making abrupt, seemingly unmotivated decisions, and their reactions to major events (i.e., a dead body) are strangely flat and unaffected. The movie gets better in its second half, when it seems to go for sick comedy: The obliviousness of the characters and the tinkling, music box score will keep nudging you in the ribs, daring you to laugh at all the lurid twists. Still, the movie is too thin to support its Cain and Abel subtext — there’s precious little dialogue in the script — and there’s an air of inevitability to the whole endeavor. From the moment we see the meek little Paul crooning some dorky tune about God’s love, it’s pretty clear that he will soon be overthrown by a sexy devil named Elvis.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].