“The King” has a royal title, and its filmmakers have plenty of regal pretensions. But the film is more a product of trailer trash than noble blood.
It’s a shame that director James Marsh and co-writer Milo Addica (“Monster’s Ball”) let their story run so far astray, into and well beyond the realm of unsavory voyeurism dished out on Jerry Springer’s TV show.
Early on, Marsh and Addica’s screenplay sets up an intriguing drama about a father and the bastard offspring he denies to protect the sanctity of his current cozy family life, the roles grandly embodied by William Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal.
Then “The King” turns terribly tabloid, wallowing in black-hearted, vulgar action carried out for inconceivable reasons.
Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) is more prodigal serpent than son, his character, grotesquely named Elvis, a smirking demon at heart.
After his discharge from the Navy, Elvis for unexplained reasons makes a beeline to meet the father he never knew. After a wild, wicked youth, David Sandow (Hurt) found Jesus and now is pastor of a fundamentalist church in Corpus Christi, Texas.
David has a perfectly pious family in wife Twyla (Laura Harring), son Paul (Paul Dano), who’s about to start Bible college, and angelic 16-year-old daughter Malerie (Pell James).
When Elvis arrives and reveals who he is, David wants nothing to do with this interloper he fathered with a Mexican woman who’s now dead.
So Elvis takes a noxious act of revenge against David and his family. Finding it to his liking, Elvis takes another, then another.
Enough taboos and barbarities pile up to fill a grisly Greek tragedy or Old Testament tale, only without the cathartic moral lessons those ancient stories mean to impart.
Just what Marsh and Addica aim to accomplish is a mystery. “The King” is not entertaining, it’s not redemptive, it’s not even titillating, despite some heavy sex scenes.
The actors make the movie bearable, for a time at least. Though we have no clue why Elvis carries out such ugly deeds, Bernal is a captivating presence whose smug sociopathy counters David’s drawling Southern sanctimony.
As a holier-than-thou Bible-thumper, Hurt has the unctuous aura of a cult leader. It’s a role unlike anything previously played by Hurt, who manages to infuse an often odious man with perverse charm and appeal.
Dano, who was dazzling in the teen drama “L.I.E.” and co-stars in this summer’s hilarious comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” has the film’s most fully drawn character, the actor subtly weaving the uncertainty of the teenager with the presumptuousness of youth.
Like Elvis, James’ mousy Malerie is a mystery, a good girl whose actions and deceptions are inexplicably at odds with what little the filmmakers reveal about her basic character.
Harring, whose breakout role came opposite Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Drive,” sadly is left with the shallowest role among the key cast, her Twyla mostly a suffer-in-silence appendage of her commanding husband.
The lurid tales of Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare and the architects of the Bible are filled with tragic archetypes, figures that survived the centuries because they represent universal foibles.
What “The King” offers are caricatures, objects not of empathy or pity but derision. Like Springer’s guests on any given day, the sort of rabble to make you exclaim, “Just look at these people. What are they thinking?”
“The King” leaves the same impression about Marsh and Addica: What were they thinking?