Arranging its easy targets like a gunman lining up beer cans to shoot, James Marsh’s The King chooses an undemanding route to condemnation, bypassing consequential nuance and rationality in censuring Bible Belt zealots for their cruel, selfish hypocrisies. The Wisconsin Death Trip documentarian’s first fictional effort, Marsh’s fable of familial betrayal and retribution immerses itself in the ramshackle rural landscape of Corpus Christi, Texas with a mixture of mild reverence (at least toward its natural beauty) and raw condescension, stooping to silly caricatures—a scraggly gentlemen orders a pizza for his dog, a clown wanders aimlessly down a bridge’s thoroughfare—in an attempt to capture the spiritual and moral decay festering in supposedly holy communities. Such disdain extends to his conception of the Sandow clan, a straight-and-narrow family led by Baptist minister David (William Hurt, in a performance dominated by his moustache-sideburn facial hair) that’s torn asunder the instant a recently discharged Naval officer named Elvis (Gael García Bernal) arrives in town. Elvis is David’s Mexican bastard child from his pre-Christian days, and in order to conceal this shameful fact from his wholesome whitebread family, the alleged man of God quickly, callously spurns the warm entreaties of his illegitimate offspring.
Prodigal son Elvis’s response to this rejection is to set in motion a vengeful plot of incest and murder against his Caucasian kin that, eventually, reveals righteous Christians’ altruism as an insincere cover for holier-than-thou intolerance. But uncomplicated scorn and mockery do not a piercing parable make, a fact lost on the film during its depiction of (among others) David’s light-skinned boy Paul (Paul Dano) as a Bible-thumping robot who fronts a spiritual rock band and wishes to institute “intelligent design” into his high school curriculum. Sculpted with all the subtlety of a severe slap to the face, Marsh’s true-believer caricatures never miss a chance to behave repugnantly, such as when, after Paul mysteriously disappears (thanks to Elvis’s stabby defensive instincts), David—in an ugly, unbelievable act of atonement—invites Elvis into his home as a temporary replacement son. Upon learning of their preacher’s infidelity, most members of David’s devout congregation opens their arms to Elvis, a moment that briefly manages to touch upon the often-contradictory exclusive/inclusive conduct of the pious. But no sooner do slight gradations appear than they quickly disappear, lest they in any way interfere with the story’s desire to challenge its characters’ turn-the-other-cheek values by inflicting suffering on relative innocents like mom Twyla (Mulholland Drive’s Laura Harring).
With the director (working with Monster’s Ball screenwriter Milo Addica) barely bothering to concoct interior lives for his characters, his stereotypical morality play proceeds with torpid schematism, its ironic reversals and descent into Cain and Abel-style wickedness merely proffering a crude lecture about Christians’ un-Christian ways. And despite some entrancingly flat, arid tableaus of its menacing small-town locale, the film primarily unfolds as a waiting game for the preordained climactic face-off between Elvis and his two-faced father. As with the similarly simplistic Beyond Honor, The King views screwing a family member as the ultimate weapon against imperious religiosity, though Bernal’s malevolently blank-faced interloper—an heir returned home to reclaim his rightful throne—nonetheless provides an ambiguous, unsettling portrait of internecine fury. Between Elvis’s taboo affair with 16-year-old sister Malerie (a fragile, tentative Pell James) set to twinkling music box piano and the filmmaker’s cinematographic preference for eerie shots of his young lovers set against vaguely unreal suburban and countryside backdrops, Marsh self-consciously strives to echo Days of Heaven. Unlike Malick’s masterpiece of besotted young lovers-on-the-run, however, The King’s attempt at off-kilter lyricism never transcends its blunt anti-red state moralizing.