Tuesday, May 23, 2006

THE KING - Frustrating, inexplicable, strange....

THE KING is an odd movie to review. I cannot say that I enjoyed my viewing experience or that this is a coherent or compelling movie. And yet I am somewhat reluctant to dismiss it as a “bad movie” that you should avoid. The difficulty for me lies in the script. The story is pretty hackneyed. There is a preacher who lives with his wife, son and daughter in contemporary Corpus Christi, Texas. They are depicted as the kind of right-wing evangelical Christian family that many people whose sole knowledge of the US comes from watching The Daily Show and reading The Onion might reflexively believe populates the entire US between LA and New York. The boys hunt deer and the girls clean up the entrails and cook the food. The young son plays Christian rock and is campaigning for Intelligent Design to be taught in his high school. The father preaches in the kind of Church that has a flashing electronic board advertising prayer times. Into this world steps a young man called Elvis, who has just quit the marines and now works as a pizza delivery boy and lives in a rented motel room. He is the illegitimate child of the preacher, and now, with his mother dead, has come back “home”. Unsurprisingly, the preacher’s first reaction is shock and denial, which pretty much breaks Elvis’ heart. His reactions to this rejection are bizarre and extreme.

Now, I started feeling uneasy at the caricatured picture of the preacher’s family at the start of the flick, but I thought, you know what, this could be a great chance to explore what goes on behind the scary clich├ęs. (And yes, I do find the concept of teaching Intelligent Design in schools scary.) But the film never really does this. You get the idea that the family is made up of essentially good people, if somewhat conflicted, but despite some obvious set pieces involving the mother, I found it hard to empathise with their reactions to Elvis’ appearance. The real enigma, however, is Elvis. Having been rejected by his father, his actions take us into the realms of melo-drama or implausible daytime soap opera. There were storylines here that would make Sunset Beach look like an essay in narrative restraint. Crazy narrative arcs are not bad of themselves. Indeed, the outstanding western, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA used a surreal storyline to bring home the emotional awakening of its key characters. The problem with THE KING is that I was no clearer as to Elvis’ motives or even mental health at any point of the film. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we are meant to be left with an enigma. But it makes for an intensely frustrating viewing experience.

Having said all this, in a curious way, this film is worth seeing purely because it is very well put together. The actors are all high-class, not least William Hurt as the preacher, Gael Garcia Bernal as Elvis, and Pell James as the preacher’s daughter. In addition, I though the camera-work was outstanding – evocative, beautiful, sometimes spooky. There is a very nicely done scene (although perhaps not fantastically original) near the end of the film, where the camera tracks through the rooms of the preacher’s house, slowly and quietly, until it comes across a painful scene that we *know* is waiting for us. Stirring stuff. The key question is whether good acting and photography, not to mention a cool sound-track, can compensate for a story-line that strains credulity and empathy. For me, THE KING was still worth a look, but if you watch movies rarely, you can surely pick better films on which to shell out your ten bucks.

THE KING was released in France in January 2006 and is currently on limited release in the US and UK. I do not know of a release date for Australia, Austria or Germany.

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