A rather beautifully produced indie mix of melodrama, ethnographic detail, and modern Southern gothic, The King begins with a symbolic recipe Don McLean might find shaky: a Corpus Christi evangelist with a secret (William Hurt), plus a wild-eyed, navy-fresh kid named Elvis who might be his illegit son (Gael García Bernal), plus loads of suggestions about gardens, snakes, and blood-soaked sin. Brit director James Marsh evidently has a touristy yen for lowdown Americana—two of his earlier documentaries were Wisconsin Death Trip and The Burger & the King: The Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley. Be that as it may, and despite a story that’s as lackadaisical as it is programmatic, The King has a hypnotically naturalist vibe, from the Jesus-clean Lone Star suburbs and low-rent, uncaricatured preachifying to the fall of afternoon light through old house windows and onto a teenager’s skin. Bernal’s weaselly nowhere man insinuates himself into Hurt’s disciplined family and between the legs of its pubescent daughter (Pell James), giving the localized action a dose of ancient-Greek octane.
The film survives on a thick diet of genuine acting moments. Bernal, as the Grand Guignol catalyst, plays it with the nearly hidden wariness of a sociopath, but it’s impossible not to believe Paul Dano as the family’s pale, earnest scion/minister-to-be and James as the vulnerable girl among bow hunters whose job it is to swab up the deer guts. Best of all, Hurt expands on a great American archetype—the neocon mega-dad who’s on a mission but lost, holy but poisoned from within, macho but never very sure of what’s right. Probably no other actor standing today could’ve brought this much juice to such a potentially simplistic character.