The King

on May 19, 2006 by Sheri Linden
Gael Garcia Bernal brings an opaque intensity to the role of a modern-day Cain in "The King." Steeped in a Southern biblical mythos, the tale of murderous jealousy unfolds with apt restraint under director James Marsh's helm. But while he deftly paints a primal landscape of dark vs. light, implausibility blunts the film's dramatic impact.

Fresh out of the Navy, Elvis Valderez (Garcia Bernal) heads to Corpus Christi, Texas, to look up the father he's never met. With cash in his pocket, his rifle and dress uniform in his bags and a newly purchased vintage Mercury Cougar, Elvis feels like somebody. But it's clear that military service has given him the only sense of identity he's ever had. He's as unformed as the vague ache that leads him to David Sandow (a superb William Hurt), the man his mother told him about before she died. Sandow has long since renounced his profligate ways, found Jesus and become leader of the Baptist congregation at Glad Tidings Church, and he wants Elvis to steer clear of his family. The youth, however, already has fallen for the pastor's 16-year-old daughter, Malerie (Pell James), a devout Christian who nonetheless responds to the good-looking, dangerous stranger.

Elvis' unconscious jealousy and longing for acceptance find expression in a sudden, deadly act of violence against Malerie's older brother, Paul (the excellent Paul Dano, last seen in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose"). Because Paul and his father quarreled before he disappears, the Sandows assume he left in anger and mount only a minimal search (implausibility No. 1). Hurt's preacher, persuasively charismatic, earnest and conflicted, tries to redeem himself by inviting Elvis into the fold of family and church, unaware of the deepening relationship between half-siblings Elvis and Malerie. His wife (Laura Harring, in a complete turnaround from her steamy "Mulholland Drive" role) watches with dismay, her faith slipping, as the story moves with unshakable dread toward its terrible climax.

Because Elvis insinuates himself into the family with a kind of blank deliberation, it's difficult to grasp the depth of the character's self-knowledge--which serves to generate not only suspense but ambiguity. Supported by a strong cast, Garcia Bernal plays the antihero as a creature of instinct, torn between survival and the urge to confess. His Southern/Mexican accent is mostly convincing, but Elvis' struggle to live less impulsively and his attraction to Sandow's life-affirming ministry don't quite ring true, undercutting the final act's intended power. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James, Laura Harring and Paul Dano. Directed by James Marsh. Written by Milo Addica and James Marsh. Produced by Milo Addica and James Wilson. A Thinkfilm release. Suspense/Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 102 min

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