So who’s a big fan of incest? Probably not many of you. Hopefully none of you. Well here’s a film that’s partly about that. In a secret son gone off the rails after being denied his reunion so he seeks revenge by systematically destroying his real fathers life. Ladies and gentlemen… The King!
The King is the story of a former Navy Cadet, Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) that decides, upon leaving his sea based life, to go in search of his real father. He heads to Corpus Christi, Texas to find his father, David Sandow (Played by William Hurt). Sandow has, since abandoning Elvis’ mother, found religion and is now a Pastor of a local church with a wife (Laura Harring), an 18 year old son (Paul Dano) and a 16 year old daughter called Malerie (Pell James). Upon being approached by Elvis David sees him as a threat to his new idyllic life and wants nothing to do with him. He sees Elvis as a reminder of his sinful, pre-Christianity, life. Elvis begins to start a romantic relationship with David’s daughter Malerie, who is unaware that Elvis is her half brother, and from there he gradually starts to dissect his fathers family life.
A lot of the film deals with Elvis and Malerie’s incestuous relationship but there is so much more going on that you’ll begin to realise quite soon that there is a lot more to this than the shock value of that subject. Pastor Sandow clearly favours his son Paul who plays in a Christian rock band at the church and is very much devoted to the word of God. Davids wife is aware of the true relationship of Elvis to her family and right from the start she isn’t comfortable with his appearance in the town. You don’t see much of her though. She largely stays out of the story until the last 40 minutes or so when Elvis’ plans to get into this new family start to come together.
Like The Killer Inside Me, The King is a story of a disturbed man with a skewed moral compass that seemingly has no barrier to stop him going too far. Unlike The killer Inside Me though there is no narration giving us a window into the motivations of his actions. Whilst we can tell why he is doing these things we are given very little to tell us why he feels he can. There’s a line about how he wasn’t cut out for a certain role in the Navy and you’re not informed at the start whether he’s leaving the Navy of his own accord or not. We’re also aware that his mother may not have had a very comfortable life with him so maybe there’s something in that motivating him to get some form of redemption. Was his plan to do what he does before he even reaches Corpus Christi or was it a decision he made after being spurned is left for you to decide. That’s a common feature of the film as a whole. It leaves plenty of open questions about Elvis’ motivations and inner thoughts. He’s a hard read. Eventually he get’s his way and is invited into the family and the final half hour is a tense sequence of events as we wait for that reveal of who Elvis is to the rest of the family.
Performances are very strong but that is to be expected from a cast that includes William Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal. Pell James is also a very convincing shy Christian 16 year old who goes on her own journey of sexual awakening and eventual despair and disgust. To support the performances is a very strong yet subtle score that uses the usual character theme format to great effect, particularly for Elvis. Alongside the score is a clever use of ambient noise to create an uneasy feeling during the incestuous sex scenes and any other moments of a disturbing nature. I wish more composers would understand just what a distorted piece of ambiance can do to inform the audience subtly of the characters mindset.
Characters develop in a nice, slow and suitably naturalistic way that doesn’t always fit into the sort of character arcs you’d expect in modern cinema. Thanks to the delicate camera work and strong performances you’re kept enthralled by the subject as it progresses to it’s very Greek tragedy-esque finale. I’m sure there’s some sort of Bible based parallel to this story too but I’m not a religious person so I couldn’t say for sure.
Overall this is a film that is very much worth watching. It moves along at a careful, considered pace, very similar to what you’d expect from most European films. It also manages to do that rare thing in modern story telling of actually being a challenging film that leaves you with plenty to think and discuss afterwards. No it’s not a film you’d watch for fun, but it is a film that you’ll remember. Unsurprisingly it was ignored by the Oscars that year, possibly because it’s challenging and not a series of showy pieces of camerawork and America/God is awesome subtext. It certainly should have had a place in the Best Picture, Director and Screenplay categories. maybe even a few performance nods too. Still, watch it, talk about it, remember it and embrace it like maybe Pastor Sandow should have embraced Elvis at the start of the film.