If Gael Bernal were a white man he would be a massive star by now. He is an enormous talent with an impeccable eye for quality projects. His presence in a film is virtually enough on its own to guarantee a film's quality. He is so strong that even when his films don't entirely work they are, at the very least, fascinating failures. This is the case with The King.
Bernal stars here as Elvis, a young man freshly released from his tour of duty in the navy. Freed from his obligations Elvis goes in search of the father he never knew, a man who paid his mother for sex and disappeared, never to be heard from again. All Elvis knows about his father is his name and where he lives. The father he never knew is David Sandow - played by William Hurt - a man who never knew Elvis even existed and has since turned to God and become a minister in Corpus Christi, Texas. When Elvis appears on his door step David sees only a visible sign of his own past, his own sin, and a threat to the stability of his own family and his position in the community and turns him away cold.
Elvis then sets off on a perplexing path. When he establishes a clandestine relationship with David's sixteen year old daughter - creepily incestuous - the initial assumption is that he is simply using the girl to get at the father but it quickly becomes clear that Elvis is deeply lost and confused, hungry for acceptance, willing to take it anywhere he can, and capable of lashing out in a cold fury at anyone who threatens it. That the road he has chosen for himself will lead to blood is perfectly clear but the path it takes to get there is far from direct.
Director James Marsh is best known for his documentary Wisconsin Death Trip and with this, his debut fictional feature, he brings a realistic, unglamorous eye and a queasy appraoch to morality. His characters are capable of horrible things but their motivations are far from clear, a fact that stands both as the film's strongest and weakest point. Trying to figure out why Bernal does any of the things he does may not be futile but it comes close and that ambiguity will drive many insane but the flip side is that it leaves plenty for the audience to chew on, many possibilities to consider and that seems to be what Marsh is on about. This is not about saying Elvis is good or bad but saying that everybody is both and how do we cope in a world where this is the case.
Both Bernal and Hurt are positively magnetic, two huge talents at the top of their game, and the supporting cast of Laura Harring, Pell James and Paul Dano keep up stride for stride. It is a difficult, frustrating film, but also a film that lingers well after the final frame. It is a picture that will undoubtedly run into problems with the ratings board and will not play well to the masses but there is undoubtedly something powerful going on and Bernal just continues to be a force to watch.