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The Independent Critic

Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James, Laura Harring, Paul Dano
James Marsh
James Marsh, Milo Addica
Rated R
105 Mins.
 "The King" Review 
In "The King," one of two films to open up the 2006 Indianapolis International Film Festival, Gael Garcia Bernal plays Elvis, a young man recently released from the U.S. Navy who decides to "go home" to the father he's never known in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The father, unbeknownst to Elvis, has become Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt), a popular preacher with a loving family, including wife (Laura Harring), a college-bound son Paul (Paul Dano) and a virginal Malerie, his 16-year-old daughter (Pell James).

When "The King" played at Cannes, there were critics who labeled the film nihilistic and one, in particular, called the film "morally noxious."

It is easy to understand why many would consider "The King" a distasteful film. It is a challenging film in which director James Marsh never once takes the easy way out into stereotypical suspense/thriller film-making. The end result might more closely resemble a cross between "Mulholland Drive" and "A History of Violence" with slightly Tarantino-esque emotional touches mixed in. It's a bizarre, uncomfortable combination that somehow works nearly all the time.

Perhaps what audiences may find most disturbing about "The King" is its lack of explanation. Elvis is, in fact, a young man seemingly capable of great cruelty and great tenderness...almost simultaneously. In fact, as I watched him toward the end of the film I kept thinking of Patrick Bateman from "American Psycho."

As Elvis, Bernal offers yet another in his seemingly endless string of magnificent performances. Bernal's Elvis is a controlled emotions belie an apparently Black Hole somewhere deep within him. This is Bernal's first English-speaking role and his English, as well as his performance, is flawless. Watching Bernal go from his apparent innocent flirtations with Malerie to a full-fledged relationship that results in a tragic confrontation between Elvis and Paul is astounding, emotionally charged and stunningly authentic.

As Pastor Sandow, William Hurt offers his best performance in years. Hurt takes a role that could easily have become a caricature and turns the Pastor into a man of deep conviction, faith and regret. If the Academy really believed that Hurt deserved an Oscar nomination for last year's "A History of Violence," then I can't fathom his being looked over for a nomination this year. At the very minimum, an Independent Spirit nomination should be a lock.

Marsh co-wrote the script with Milo Addica, who also wrote "Birth" and "Monster's Ball." It should come as no surprise, then, that the film is willing to go places, say things and propose things that the vast majority of the American public will consider stunningly offensive.

Did Nicole Kidman bathing with the young man in "Birth" offend you? Well, then, the notion of Elvis seducing Malerie, his half-sister, should creep you out even more. Watching how this plays out becomes dramatically and tragically mesmerizing. Addica and Marsh's script is remarkably understated with slight dialogue that never resorts to histrionics or dramatics to make its point.

Because Marsh refuses to provide answers to even the most dramatic questions posed in "The King," it becomes an uncomfortable film to watch. Without an explanation, one never knows completely what to expect from Elvis and the ending, in particular, leaves virtually every possibility open yet the film ends with one of the best closing lines I've heard in recent years.

The cinematography by Eigil Bryld is remarkable in its ranging from tender and sweet during early scenes between Malerie and Elvis to scenes that are intense and haunting in the latter half of the film. The film's soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment, and even many of the church scenes carry the perfect feeling of a small-town church.

"The King" is going to be a hard-sell at the box-office due to James Marsh's unyielding vision for the film. It would have been relatively easy to have turned this into an infinitely more marketable film, however, that would have ended up making it just like every other suspense/thriller on the market. Instead, "The King" becomes something special because it never compromises.

"The King" is an intelligent, disturbing thriller because we grow to care about these characters without really ever understanding their histories and their motivations. With stand-out performances by Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt and involving performances from the rest of the supporting cast, "The King" is a must-see for fans of innovative, intelligent and uncompromising independent cinema.

"The King" opens in limited release in the United States on May 19, 2006.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic