Twenty-first century cinematic ministers fare little better than their predecessors. Southerners in contemporary cinema never get it easy either. Combine the two and you have a recipe for ridicule. The King (2006), directed by the British James Marsh, is an attempt to wrap a Southern gothic fairy tale in religious garb. Despite a great cast, including Gael Garcia Bernal, Paul Dano, and William Hurt, the extra religious layer burdens a film that is in no shape to shoulder it.
Elvis Valderez (Bernal) is a young man fresh out of the Navy in search of his father, David Sandow (Hurt). David is the pastor of a church in southern Texas, and he and his wife, Twyla (Laurie Herring), have two children, Paul (Dano) and Malerie (Pell James). When Elvis finally meets David, the reverend makes it all too clear that Elvis represents a part of his past life that he does not want intruding on his present one. However, Elvis will not be deterred, and he even begins to pursue Malerie. They eventually begin sleeping together, and when Paul finds out that Elvis has been sneaking in and out of their house, he threatens to tell his father. Elvis quickly dispatches Paul and tosses his body into a lake. Thinking that Paul has run away, David and Twyla go through a brief grieving process. David soon invited Elvis to live with them and even confesses to his church that he is his son. In the meantime, Malerie has gotten pregnant, and when she finds out that Elvis is her half brother, she obviously panics. When Elvis sees her crying to her mother (either revealing her pregnancy or the true whereabouts of her brother), he kills both of them and burns down their house. He then goes to David’s church, with blood literally on his hands, and tells his father, “I need to get right with God.”
One of the film’s many problems is its religious tone which might be due to the foreignness of its director and his unfamiliarity with the location. The film seems as if it is directed by someone who just visited the area for a couple of weeks to shoot a film and did not spend a significant amount of time there. Thus, the portrayal of religion, so central to the story, suffers. Hurt is the least convincing pastor I have seen in recent cinema, and his sermons are the most bland. He aims at some sort of rhythm in his delivery, but in the end just sound too forced and transparent. Hurt, however, does capture the tension of a man who has lived, to an extent, two lives, with the former painfully invading the latter in more ways than one.
Another problem with the film’s depiction of religion is one that I have found in a variety of “secular” films with religious plots or characters. The community of faith and its place of worship are reduced to the lowest visual common denominator. David’s church is called Glad Tidings Ministries, a most nebulous name if there ever was one. There is no evidence of denominational affiliation on the church’s exterior electronic sign, and inside, the church has little decoration save for a cross and some flowers. Paul plays in the church’s praise band which performs upbeat, poppy songs, but when he tries to sing one of his own songs, his father rebukes him for venturing beyond scripture, as if the praise songs they sang before have direct scriptural foundation or are in any way traditional.
Like its portrayal of religion, The King‘s characters are too thinly drawn. I don’t often agree with film critic Kyle Smith of The New York Post, but he’s right when he says, “There is no tragedy without character, yet the way The King drapes heavy situations around its feebly imagined personalities suggests a tire thrown around the neck of a poodle.” Director and co-writer Marsh can not even manage stereotypical characters. Elvis is the most confusing one of all. Is he one beer short of a six-pack? He tells Malerie, “I tried for the honor guard, but they told me I did not have what it takes.” Is he bad or evil? Or does he just need a home? He, unlike Malerie, knows they are related, but it does not stop him from having sex with his sixteen year old half-sister. Paul and David, though pious, are ultimately weak in their faith as Paul tries unsuccessfully to introduce intelligent design into the science curriculum at school. As an aside, Paul and Malerie’s school requires the students to wear uniforms which might suggest a parochial school which might, in turn, imply the presence of educational alternatives to evolution. When David purchases a car for Paul, the salesman asks for a credit card. David attempts to give him an evangelism tract that says “JESUS.” David adds, “He can change your life.” It clearly does not occur to him that there’s a significant chance that this man goes to church somewhere in southern Texas. The best performance might be Herring’s role as Twyla, the silent suffering mother.
The King must have had potential with its religious environment, but given the ways in which the filmmakers approached it, they might have been better served by leaving it out. They still could have had a dramatic story about a haunting, destructive past and maybe even said something about class, social status, and the divisions in the South. Unfortunately, all we have is, as the Brits might call it, a bloody mess.
The King (105 mins.) is rated R for sexual content, violence, and language and is widely available on DVD.