Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 14, 2006 7:29 pm 
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Texas gothic, by a Brit

James Marsh is an English director fascinated with the air-conditioned nightmare. Elvis, junk food, and other charmingly interconnected American regionalisms have drawn his attention in the past. In his new movie The King he turns his gaze to sin in the Bible Belt. And when we say sin, these are doozies. An outsider's view can be useful in highlighting our absurdities and downright horrors, but on the other hand Marsh's depiction of Texas fundamentalists retains the outsider's lack of nuance. The King's focus is on transgression, and it aims to shock us. But the trouble is the shocks come so unexpectedly we haven't got time to react to them, and their arrival is illogical and the pacing erratic. This movie is stimulating in an off-the-wall Todd Soladz-extreme Gothic sort of way, but it fails to take the time to set a mood or develop character, despite the efforts of the cast, and so it doesn't leave you with much. That's a shame, because it certainly takes chances, and it has some strong moments with good acting, if only they hung together better.

A high standard of acting is set by William Hurt as Pastor David Sandow, a successful, folksy-trendy fundamentalist preacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, whose church is jerrybuilt but large and new and whose house is big and in a nice neighborhood. Hurt's such an able thespian he makes this guy interesting and complex even though the movie wants to view him as a brutish hypocrite.

Trouble comes for Pastor Sandow with the arrival of Elvis, Sandow's illegitimate half-Mexican son who appears as from nowhere, having just gotten out of the navy. Bernal seems determined to use his charisma and success to stretch and challenge himself. Having already been in a clutch of fine Spanish-language films (Iñárritu, Cuarón, Salles, Almodóvar—not such bad guys to work for), a not-so-good but thoroughly British one (directed by Matthew Parkhill), he now appears with a nearly pitch-perfect American accent, almost too perfect for a Chicano kid. Anyway Garcia Bernal's evil-innocent, detached creation is interesting to watch, even though his Elvis Valderez, like the other characters, remains all on the surface. It'll be fun to see how his recent outing with French fantasist Michel Gondry, The Science of Sleep, turned out.

The garage chez Sandow has a small SUV and a van. On the wall there are modern crossbows: the Rev. likes to hunt deer with his 18-year-old son Paul (Paul Dano, a sort of nerdy-cool guy), who plays Christian rock for the church services and is soon to be on his way to Baylor U. Like a lot of American teenagers, young Paul's a little too busy, because he's also campaigning at his high school with a group of fellow young fundamentalists to get Intelligent Design taught as an alternative to Evolution. Paul has a 16-year-old sister Malerie (Pell James), who's innocent and sweet. They don't know about Elvis, and when Elivs starts wooing Malerie it's on the sly, because at first Pastor David wants nothing to do with this reminder of something that happened "before I was a Christian." When Paul starts noticing something going on between Elvis and his sister, he knows it's a transgression (but not how big a one) -- and that's when the big trouble starts.

I was reminded of Brian Dannelly's 2004 Saved!, whose depiction of a would-be with-it born-again preacher with problem offspring is equally crude and exaggerated, except that Saved! is a free-wheeling satire, whereas The King hasn't really got much of a sense of humor, and seems to aspire to something more haunting and soul-searching, though it inspired a good many nervous titters from the audience.

The King is a little like Hemingway's famous short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" because it's about a man who finally does the right thing and becomes a mensch in his own eyes, and then loses everything. The outlook here is profoundly nihilistic -- but then I guess so was Hemingway's -- and I guess this is as macho as Hemingway in its outlook, too. Marsh and his writer, Milo Addica, who penned Birth and Monster's Ball, are so over the top, they have to just hint at the full extent of the apocalyptic, violent finale. Poor family.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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