There’s an old Gap commercial in which Will Ferrell, imitating Neil Diamond, says, “I wrote this song on the back of a Dixie Cup,” and proceeds to sing “Forever in Blue Jeans.” When watching “The King,” a film so offensively devoid of originality and good sense, you have to wonder if its conception came about in a similar moment of paperware reuse.
All you have to do is fight off the boredom-induced coma the film lulls you into long enough to see the geography of the film’s plot to realize how simplistic and derivative it is.
Guy gets out of the Navy. Guy goes to Smalltown, USA to find his dad. Dad turns out to have fathered Guy by accident and wants no part of Guy’s life. Guy gets angry and starts to screw with Dad’s legitimate family. Things go awry.
That’s it. Really. At least on the most base level; of course, there are little nuances here and there meant to heighten the emotion of the film. But those touches are smarmy and unbelievable.
The Guy in this case is Elvis Valderez, played with more gusto than the role deserves by Gael Garcia Bernal. The Dad is Pastor David Sandow, played solidly by William Hurt. And Dad’s legit fam is daughter Malerie (Pell James), son Paul (Paul Dano), and wife Twyla (Laura Harring). Elvis was fathered by Pastor Sandow, we’re told, before he was “saved.” The pastor-to-be had an illicit affair with Elvis’ mother, who is implied to have been a hooker (she’s dead by the time the movie starts), and ditched her when she got pregnant.
When Elvis confronts Pastor Sandow after one of his services at his mini-mega-church in Corpus Christi, the pastor wants nothing to do with Elvis and warns his family to stay away from him -- that is, after he introduces Elvis to everyone in his family. And the pastor’s warning doesn’t much matter since Elvis already met Malerie -- who is 16 -- and planted the seeds of a possible sexual relationship.
This is the same tired narrative that indie filmmakers like to make to highlight how dystopian rural America is. With one exception: the Elvis/Malerie relationship. In this, the film attempts to be Lynchian, but accomplishes only being sexual predator creepy.
After Elvis meets the Sandows, he realizes that the jailbait he met in the pastor’s church is not only illegal but also his half-sister. So he begins to mess with Pastor Sandow by messing with his daughter. But the facts of her situation -- she’s 16 and related to him -- doesn’t deter Elvis from dating her, banging her, and impregnating her. The whole scenario oozes with sleaze.
Making it worse is that it’s never really clear how sexing up the pastor’s 16 year-old daughter is going to harm the pastor. Sure, he might get angry and disgusted -- after all, the audience feels that way watching these scenes. But Elvis’ actions aren’t going to endear the pastor to him because it seems like the only thing the whole sordid relationship is accomplishing is allowing Elvis to get his rocks off. And when you consider that Elvis might have actually fallen in love with her, the purpose of this relationship in Elvis’ scheme is even less apparent.
But Elvis hooking up with Malrie as a way to get back at the pastor makes even less sense when you consider another interaction Elvis has with the Sandows. Later in the film, Elvis is confronted by Paul, who saw Elvis sneak out of the Sandow home after taking Malerie around the world. Paul threatens to rat out Elvis to his dad. Elvis stabs Paul, saying, “How does it feel?” Paul dies, Elvis dumps the body, and everyone thinks Paul ran away because of an argument he had with the pastor.
It’s never really clarified what exactly Elvis wants Paul to feel when he stabs him since nothing is ever clarified in the film. Not motivations, not plotlines, not actions. Not anything.
But that’s not the biggest problem resulting from this moment. No, that comes when Elvis, a few days after dumping Paul’s body in a lagoon, takes Malerie to the lagoon and tells her everything that happened.
In an actual movie with substance and narrative structure, this revelation would propel Malerie -- who has just been told her brother was murdered by the sleazebag that knocked her up -- to turn Elvis in. But not in “The King.” It’s only after Pastor Sandow reveals to his congregation -- and his family -- that Elvis is his illegitimate son does Malerie decide to do something. Apparently, murder isn’t as bad as incest.
Things spiral, unbelievably, downward even more from this point, into the 90-minute pit of inanity that is “The King.”
Watching this film, it’s hard not to think that director James Marsh, who also co-wrote the film with Milo Addica (it took two people to write a distillation of every movie made in the past 10 years?), has the attitude that he can throw any amount of unmotivated pap into the film and it will be swallowed unquestioningly by the audience because this is an “indie” film about the American experience. But this is foolish. There is no way to throw statutory rape and incest in a film, not explain its purpose to the plot, and, rather than resolve it, make it more and more outlandish as the film goes on -- and then expect an audience to sit in a theater and think it‘s daring.
And “The King” is anything but daring. Unless, of course, your definition of daring is a boring and soulless moviemaking triviality that wastes perfectly good acting because it’s more concerned with being shocking than it is with telling a story.