When "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" was released in 1986, words like "reprehensible" and "disgusting" were dished out in scathing reviews, leaving you to wonder, what were those nay-sayers expecting? Wasn't the title clear enough? And didn't the movie honestly and effectively deliver exactly what that title promised?
"The King" is another story. It really is reprehensible and disgusting, not only because we've seen far too many sociopaths in movies over the past 20 years, but because it deals with horrid clichés and presents them as something indie-hip and morally provocative. The movie's advertising tag line is "The Devil Made Me Do It," as if that were adequate explanation for its noxiously hollow portrait of aberrant (and abhorrent) behavior.
It's the kind of movie that names its title character Elvis (aka The King) because, hey, it's cool and ironic and says something (don't ask me what) about rebel spirits in a corrupted America. The character's full name is Elvis Valderez (Gael García Bernal), a 21-year-old malcontent who's just been honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy.
His first stop as a liberated civilian is his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, where he quickly grows smitten with 16-year-old Malerie (Pell James), daughter of fundamentalist preacher David Sandow (William Hurt).
As it happens, Sandow is Elvis' long-estranged father from a past affair, and Elvis is the unwanted serpent in the preacher's familial garden of Eden. For reasons never explained, we realize that Elvis' intentions are premeditated, perverse and devious in the extreme. The fate of Sandow's Christian-rocker son (Paul Dano) is our first indication that "The King" is going to get very nasty indeed.
If the point of all this is that the sins of the father will be visited on the son ... well, as Peggy Lee crooned, is that all there is? As directed by James Marsh (whose dramatized documentary "Wisconsin Death Trip" plays like a gothic rehearsal for this film) and co-written by Milo Addica ("Monster's Ball," "Birth"), "The King" is seductive enough that it can't be instantly dismissed.
And Hurt brings anguish and nuance to a role that could've been a Bible Belt caricature. But after Sandow's wife (Laura Harring) turns into a grief-stricken zombie and utters "God's not listening anymore," "The King" tailspins into pointless provocation.
Bearing close but coincidental similarity to the recently released "Down in the Valley" (a marginally better film), "The King" is about a prodigal son who's literally a mean, malevolent bastard. If we understood him better, we might have reason to care.
Jeff Shannon: firstname.lastname@example.org