'The King': Elvis In Hell, By Kurt Loder

Fans of Gael García Bernal should think twice — or possibly not at all — about catching him in this one.

This singularly creepy movie starts out knee-deep in implausibility and by its conclusion is awash in preposterousness. But the creepiness lingers — the picture makes you feel as if you've caught a low-grade dose of some particularly icky disease. This is an accomplishment, of a sort, but, like scurvy or chlamydia, not one you'd normally applaud, let alone seek out.

Gael García Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries") plays a quiet, 20-something character named Elvis Valderez. As the movie begins, he's mustering out of the U.S. Navy, and we see him walking off a battleship with his duffle bag and an M-1 rifle. (Since soldiers aren't allowed to take their weapons with them when they leave the service, this is the first of the film's many inanities.) Elvis hops on a bus and makes his way to Corpus Christi (note the name), Texas, where he was told by his late mother that his father — or the man who fathered him — now lives. Dad turns out to be David Sandow (William Hurt), and in the 20-some years since his romp with a Mexican prostitute, he's found Jesus and become a minister, with a wife and two teenage kids and a large church, of the sort where sermons are interlarded with songs played by a Christian-rock band, in this case led by Sandow's prissy son, Paul (Paul Dano).

Arriving at the church, Elvis first encounters Sandow's daughter, a pretty, blank-faced 16-year-old named Malerie (Pell James). When he subsequently approaches Sandow, the older man realizes right away who Elvis is, but he asks that they talk later. Elvis never calls Sandow, but he surreptitiously takes up with the virginal Malerie, who appears to have the metabolism and the pliability of a worm. When brother Paul discovers they're having a relationship of a biblical nature, he becomes furious. Confronting Elvis in the cheap motel room where he's living, Paul threatens to tell his father what's going on. (Someone should have told the director about the boom mike that keeps dipping down into the film frame in this scene.) Elvis stabs Paul with a bread knife, loads the dead body into Paul's car, drives it out to the river and dumps it. Afterward, walking back across a bridge, he passes a sour-looking man in a clown costume — a character who gets a fond close-up, but is never seen again.

When the police learn that Sandow and his son had an argument the day before, they assume the boy has simply left home, and, as is no doubt standard police procedure in south Texas, they don't even bother starting a search for him. Meanwhile, Malerie has learned she's pregnant. No problem, Elvis tells the girl he knows to be his half-sister: "We can have it." Then he admits to her that he killed Paul. "Do you love me?" she asks. "That's why I did it," he says. No problem: Malerie decides not to tell her parents that her brother has been murdered.

After a not-very-long while, with Paul still missing, Sandow seeks Elvis out. He invites him to dinner, and then invites him to move into the family home — into Paul's room, in fact. Then he takes Elvis to a service at the church, where the minister confesses to the congregation his long-ago fling with the prostitute. Then, apparently having reached an accelerated closure in the matter of his son's disappearance, he says, "I'm not gonna ask God to bring Paul back home. I'm gonna ask God to take care of him." Then he introduces Elvis as his newly found son. Then ...

Well, then some extremely grotesque things happen — things that are both chillingly repellent and completely ridiculous at the same time. The last line in the movie, murmured by Elvis, is so honkingly absurd you want to rip your head off in order to quickly console your brain for the affront.

It would seem that the director, James Marsh, and his co-scriptwriter, Milo Addica (who also had a hand in the surpassingly creepy Nicole Kidman movie, "Birth"), intended to say something about Christianity, or the sins of the past, or maybe the insurmountable difficulty of making a movie that makes any sense. Their intentions remain known only to them. True, Elvis Presley was "the king." And Jesus was/is the King. And at one point the Elvis in the film fashions a kingly crown for himself out of a burger-joint placemat. But — you almost want to shout it at the screen — so what? Why does nobody in the movie care what happened to Paul — even his sister, who knows? Why does Elvis lug his rifle around with him when he never uses it? And speaking of Sweet Jesus, what about that clown?

The actors do all that they can with these characters, which is practically nothing. Elvis and Malerie are barely written, near-comatose ciphers. We never have any idea what they're thinking, or why they do what they do, or why the filmmakers think that anyone would want to watch them do it. The story's acrid conception really gets to you — you walk away feeling like you're coming down with the flu. But as a box-office proposition, I'd wager it won't prove contagious.


—Kurt Loder

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