2005Director: James Marsh
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James
y female companion began writhing in her seat at the sight of Gael Garcia Bernal changing out of his naval fatigues early in The King. “He’s gorgeous,” she whispered, and glancing around the cinema at the demographic of the crowd, I could see Senor Bernal had more than a few young female (and male) admirers. Sighing, I had to agree. He is indeed a beautiful man, and so far, he’s more than proven that he’s an outstanding young actor, to boot. Smart choices, interesting roles, and a moody, charming talent place him in the current elite bracket of promising male leads, alongside Ledger, Rhys-Meyers, Gyllenhaal et al, eclipsing the sour memories of seemingly clueless DiCaprio, and McGregor.
Halfway through The King something startling happens, and from that point on, Bernal’s fans were left squirming in their seats for another reason altogether. Pay credit to English director James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip) for so effectively disarming his audience by fetishizing Bernal’s easy charm and grace, setting them up for an uncomfortable fall toward a bleak, unforgiving ending that resonates for days.
Marsh’s film has a sense of timelessness about it. Were it not for the digital display on Pastor William Hurt’s church or the occasional modern vehicle, we could easily believe Bernal to be fresh out of the Navy after World War II. The radio playing constantly and eerily on his battered Ford Mercury Cougar churns out ‘50’s torch songs; his simple white T-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots give nothing away. The faded motel room and empty landscapes betray a Middle America that clings to a bygone era, a time of simple Christian values of rapidly diminishing relevance.
Hurt’s church is filled with bruised families in need of something to believe in, some creed to stave off the modern world. His son (a remarkable Paul Dano) is the top-dog Christian student in high school, singer and songwriter in the church band, groomed by Hurt to become a pastor himself. His overly optimistic attempts to change the Darwinism taught in the school meet with dismal failure, leaving him brittle and vulnerable. Only Hurt’s sixteen year-old daughter, a difficult role for Pell James, is curious about life outside the confines of a dogmatic religion. Her encounters with Bernal’s Elvis are touching and erotic.
What seems initially to be a standard “bastard son seeks out the father he never knew” story morphs deliberately into an apocalyptic tale of familial destruction as Bernal’s devilish loner quietly and cheerily carries out his own agenda, taking on morality and organised religion without any fuss or concern. As his character grows in stature, that good-natured smile appears tinged with menace; behind those sweet eyes, we bear witness to monstrous depths. It is Bernal’s ability to convey so much with a simple stare that defines his talent as an actor. Despite some occasionally heavy-handed imagery (the pale horse, the black cat, fascination with flames), the film is beautifully shot and superbly acted, the young cast admirably holding its own alongside an old pro like Hurt (haggard, misguided, and watchable as always).
The King is an interesting and strange addition to the indie-movie catalogue. Stuffed with odd and deeply disturbing moments, as well as instances of startling beauty, Marsh’s film is, in a sense, an inversion of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. The only real problem here is that’s difficult to discern what exactly King is trying to say. But perhaps that’s the point: Christianity and amorality do not mix well in our society, and they subsequently make for troubling bedfellows in this film.
By: Chris Flynn
Published on: 2006-04-03