Almost a sesqui-century after the end of the Civil War, the South is still The Story of America. I mean the literal South, but also its state of mind ... in modern parlance, the Red States, where the concept of "family values" is a sword, not a shield, and where God and Jesus join Mother, Father and the kids at the dinner table every night.
You don't have to believe in this state of mind, or even like it very much, to appreciate its importance in American life today. Last year, the superb Junebug told a story of the Blue and the Red. This year's story is The King ... not half as good, but still interesting ... which gets us into the minds of Elvis (Gael García Bernal), just out of the Navy, who goes to Texas to meet a stranger, the evangelical Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt), who made his mother pregnant 20-some years earlier.
This is clearly a setup for a critique on American Life: its perversions, its banalities and, of course, its hypocrisies and inner tensions, especially where religion is concerned. But then director/writer James March executes a moment that turns his drama into a low-keyed psychological thriller as well (the work of Claude Chabrol comes to mind). It's an awkward mix, largely because the first half of the movie is so strong and so relevant.
When Elvis and Sandow meet, one on one, the pastor ultimately acknowledges his role in the young man's creation and then hastily introduces him to his family: a wife, 16-year-old Malerie, and college-bound Paul, who plays in a Christian rock band and who wants the school board (of Corpus Christi!) to teach intelligent design alongside evolution. Paul's pitch doesn't even pretend it's not about religion.
But Sandow doesn't mention to his family that Elvis is his son, leaving the door open for Elvis, whose bitterness creeps up on us, to court Malerie and take her virginity. Carelessness naturally ensues, most of it growing from Elvis' emotional instability, but some of it a product of the narrow world of subdued fanatical faith in which this family exists.
The construction of character in The King is absorbing from the start, and Marsh, a sensitive director, laces his film with visual metaphors to underscore his themes. He leaves us work to do, questions to answer, pathologies to debate. So he really didn't need to concoct such an extreme story, which invites some conclusions that seem unfair to all involved. (If we're to have this discussion, we need to talk about the middle, not the margins.)
Hurt has matured into a precision character actor; and Bernal, the sinewy young Mexican heartthrob and emerging star, speaks his barely accented English with a cadence and syntax so authentic that he could offer lessons to Antonio Banderas, who, after 20 years of making American films, is still largely incomprehensible.