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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006
By KAORI SHOJI
In "The King," there's a lot of discussion about "intelligent design," the anti-Darwinian theory that states there's a logical intention behind the creation of all life. "The King" makes you believe it: at least, some extremely intelligent (albeit malevolent) design seems to be at work behind the birth and subsequent appearance of Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) into the life of Rev. David Sandow (William Hurt), a prosperous Texan evangelist living with his wife and two teenage children.
The reverend, who preaches about the fires of hell as the consequences of sin, does not welcome Elvis -- a son born out of a relationship with a Mexican prostitute some two decades ago. ("That happened before I met God.") After the death of his mother, Elvis had served in the U.S. Navy and upon being discharged, came straight to Texas to look up the father he had never met. "This is a bad time," says the reverend, and he hands him a business card and tells his long-lost son to get in touch the following week. Elvis smiles, nods and turns away. At this moment, the reverend is oblivious to the fact that he has unwittingly set off a terrible chain of events, one that he will be powerless to stop. Elvis, the instigator of these events, will carry it all out as if they had nothing to do with his personal intentions, but the actions of some higher being -- ultimately beating the reverend at his own game. Two lines intoned by Elvis will haunt the reverend like a death sentence: "It wasn't my fault" and "I want to get right with God.'
Directed by James Marsh, "The King" is a brilliant piece of filmmaking on every level, not least of all for the way it deletes all explanations, excuses and contrivances. It would have been easy to insert some incident from Elvis' past (a tough childhood as an illegitimate son for example) that would give some sense to his actions, but the film never relies on anything so easy. There's no break in the spiral of tragedy and destruction, no last-minute thunderbolt of saving grace. Elvis is no cut-out character with one-dimensional emotions; the screen is too small to contain his personality and he unleashes coils of subdued passion and menace like a phantasmagoric snake.
To the casual observer, Elvis is a nice enough youth -- when the reverend brushes him off he backs away politely and goes off to get a job in a pizza parlor. Prior to that, he had become acquainted with the reverend's 16-year-old daughter Malerie (Pell James) not knowing she was his half-sister. But upon realizing Malerie is actually family, Elvis wastes no time in seducing her (in her school uniform yet), and pretty soon she's stopping off from school to spend a few hours in his fleabag motel digs and letting him into her bedroom after her family have fallen asleep. Elvis doesn't stop there -- when Malerie's brother, Paul (Paul Dano), pays a surprise visit to confront him about his sister, Elvis responds by driving a knife through his chest.
What's remarkable about Elvis is that none of what he does seems to spring from malice, but from an impulse that is pure, spontaneous and utterly violent. (Prior to killing Paul, he had peacefully been eating a sandwich and offers some when the latter comes knocking.) Maybe he is just seeking acceptance, viewing himself as the prodigal son whose return to the family should, by rights, have been celebrated. But having been spurned at the outset, Elvis goes about getting his father's attention in the crudest of ways.
As for Rev. Sandow, for all his shrewdness and religious convictions, he's no match for the life-force that is Elvis. After Paul goes missing the reverend mopes for a while, then installs Elvis in his house (and in Paul's bedroom). He introduces his "new son" to his church congregation and admits to his past sin. Bernal ("Bad Education," "The Motorcycle Diaries") gives his best performance ever -- and that's saying a lot -- as the charismatic and mesmerizing Elvis who, once he has ensnared someone in his velvety stare, will either utterly disarm them or completely destroy them. He's a wild and elegant animal next to the staid Sandow, an existence far beyond conventional measurements of good/evil/morality or whatever arguments the family may have about God's will. (When Malerie tells him she's pregnant, he enthusiastically tells her to have the baby.) Contrasting painfully with Elvis is Paul, the Good Son who leads the choir in his father's church and campaigns to include intelligent design as part of his high-school curriculum. Nothing Elvis does is predictable, everything about Paul is dead-on Bible Belt.
Bernal is stunning, but so is everyone else in the cast who sway and stagger between varying degrees of humiliation and pain. James was 27 when she took on the role of Malerie, but displays the fragility of a genuine Ophelia who would choose to drown herself in the name of adolescent love. As Paul, Dano reveals, and occasionally revels in, a megasize Oedipus complex that propels his every action. Hurt mixes aggressive decency with a touch of sadism; you can tell this combination had served the reverend quite well until Elvis came along. After that, the world he had created for himself (with the Lord's blessing) shattered in a matter of weeks and the expression on his face during the last scene will stay with the viewer for a long, long time.