Bad things happen to good people – unfortunate, yes, but an inescapable fact of life. Events occur, fate intervenes and upstanding individuals are often left with shattered, strewn-about lives, left to pick up the pieces and wonder why them. A finely wrought piece of sweaty Southern Gothic, British documentarian James Marsh's feature debut The King takes this axiom and runs with it, building a potent little character study about a man whose past returns with a vengeance.
Marsh and co-screenwriter Milo Addica (he of Monster's Ball fame) take clichés carved in stone and smash them to pieces with surprising results – as a result, I'll tread lightly with regards to the plot. The less you know going in, the more surprising the outcome. The ferociously intense Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Elvis Valderez, a freshly discharged sailor who sets out for Corpus Christi, Texas, in search of his estranged father. The man in question, Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt), isn't all that thrilled to see Elvis initially. Laying off Elvis as a product of a time "before I was a Christian," he rebuffs the young man's attempts at reconciliation. Undeterred, Elvis lingers in Corpus Christi, hoping to start a friendship with David's daughter, Malerie (Pell James) and build something of a life for himself. Sadly, Elvis soon learns you can lead a man to his past, but you can't make him accept it, building to an inevitable, if still shocking, climax.
The King is a film that takes its time, unfolding at a deliberate pace, while continuing to inexorably tighten the screws – a few genuine surprises reveal themselves, further ratcheting up the tension and taking the story to some truly unpleasant places. It's probably also worth noting that a few of the plot points might cause the more squeamish some discomfort – The King isn't shy about taking taboo subjects and openly confronting them; its progressive attitudes about the borders of family may leave some unnerved. Marsh, whose previous works include the cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip, guides his ensemble with a steady hand – Bernal and Hurt are exceptional, while Laura Harring is tragically underused – and working from his screenplay with Addica, doesn't resort to melodrama or thin clichés. The shattering conclusion and abrupt ending may infuriate some, but they are both in keeping with the fairly operatic tone set early on.
The King is a surprising slice of cinema that plays against expectations to brilliant effect; Bernal continues to make his mark as one of the most consistently interesting actors working today, while director James Marsh and co-screenwriter Milo Addica fashion a twisted morality play out of Southern Gothic and audience expectations. It's one of the year's more unexpected gems, an unassuming slow burn that stays with you. The DVD
The King is presented with a mostly spotless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, featuring noticeable grain in the more lowly lit scenes, but overall, is very clean, sharp and smooth. The Audio:
A film driven largely by dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is relegated to imparting Max Avery Lichtenstein's score with spacious fidelity, as well as giving those robust spirituals plenty of room to roam. Speech is heard clearly, without distortion and overall, it's a very full, clean mix. A Dolby 2.0 stereo track is on board as are optional Spanish subtitles. The Extras:
The main attraction here is a brisk, chatty and informative commentary track featuring Addica and Marsh, who touch on production minutiae and larger themes with equal passion. Six minutes, 54 seconds of deleted scenes, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, are included, as is a two minute, 48 second rehearsal scene featuring Bernal and Paul Dano. The film's theatrical trailer and trailers for Little Athens, Down in the Valley and 10th and Wolf complete the disc. Final Thoughts:
The King is a surprising slice of cinema that plays against expectations to brilliant effect; Gael Garcia Bernal continues to make his mark as one of the most consistently interesting actors working today, while director James Marsh and co-screenwriter Milo Addica fashion a twisted morality play out of Southern Gothic and audience expectations. It's one of the year's more unexpected gems, an unassuming slow burn that stays with you. Recommended.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.