Elvis Is In the Building

Washington City Paper | June 16, 2006
The King is the story of a young seducer—and one who has even less command over his instincts than the feckless Xavier does. Or maybe he has immaculate control: The damage Elvis Valderez (Gael García Bernal) inflicts on a Texas household is sufficiently comprehensive to suggest an elaborate master plan. Then again, Elvis is so thinly conceived—and so blankly played by the Y Tu Mamá También star—as to disallow this option. So perhaps Elvis is meant to be an idiot savant of domestic mayhem—in which case the only remaining objection to director and co-writer James Marsh’s coolly lurid scenario is that it’s kind of dull.

The opening credits begin as Elvis prepares for his discharge from the Navy, a sequence staged to a deafening—and ironic—Dolly Parton rendition of “Peace in the Valley.” Taking his rifle with him as a harbinger, the clean-cut cipher buys a car and drives to—more irony—Corpus Christi. There, he scopes out David Sandow (William Hurt), the mutton-chopped pastor of a hip fundamentalist church, and his family.

David’s adored son Paul (Paul Dano) fronts the church’s Jesus-rock band and has one more project before heading to college: convincing the local school board to add intelligent design to the curriculum. David’s quiet wife Twyla (Laura Harring) and passive daughter Malerie (Pell James) have lesser roles in the household. In one moment that’s supposed to reveal much about the Sandows and their benighted region, Malerie is seen dutifully cleaning up the bloody remains of a doe David and Paul killed on one of their bow-hunting trips.

The underlying issue is quickly revealed. Before David was “saved”—and married—he fathered another child: Elvis. At their first meeting, David rebuffs his natural son and tells him to stay away from his family. Instead, Elvis secretly courts Malerie and is soon her clandestine incestuous lover. (Will she get pregnant? Do you even have to ask?) Then Paul vanishes after an argument with his dad, and in his confusion and remorse, David decides to change his life. He confesses his premarital indiscretion to his congregation and invites Elvis to live in Paul’s now-empty room. That, of course, is a bad idea.

Marsh is a Briton with a taste for American Gothic. His previous films include Wisconsin Death Trip, a docudrama about an isolated 19th-century town’s affinity for murder. His writing partner for this movie is Milo Addica, whose credits include Monster’s Ball and Birth, stories in which the past creepily asserts itself. And so it does in The King, a film that—not unlike Birth—attempts to sell a contrived premise through rigorous underplaying. All of the major characters, even the one embodied by notorious overactor Hurt, seem sedated. Dabo’s Paul, who tries to balance religious humility with teenage cockiness, is the most believable of the principals, and he vanishes midway through the story.

At least one critic who was once a 16-year-old girl accepts Malerie’s exceptional susceptibility, so perhaps her character is plausible. A similar allowance can’t be made, however, for Elvis, who drives the entire story while appearing largely unmotivated. In cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s elegant compositions, he’s a ghostly presence seen through a glass darkly, reflected in mirrors, or framed in the middle distance. This king is merely a pawn in a game that’s fixed against not just him but against all of the characters.

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