In "The King," Gael Garcia Bernal, the young Mexican movie star who's been storming his way though some of the better foreign films of the past few years ("Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Motorcycle Diaries"), takes an English-language role of daunting complexity and, despite a strong effort, can't bring it home.
The Corpus Christi setting for all this is appropriately wide-open and bleak, a red-state domain of bland motels and placid suburbs. Within its sunny confines, Elvis almost effortlessly swoops in on the Sandows' lives: romancing his half-sister, tormenting (unintentionally) his half-brother, alienating Twyla and putting a face on guilt that Davis can't escape.
Marsh and Addica obviously intended "The King" to be an archetypal American movie nightmare. They want one of those tales in which a sexy rebel disrupts a settled community (the sort of role for which the real Elvis Presley was a natural), but carried to the darkest edges, commingling "East of Eden"/"Picnic"-style psychological drama with the sinister depths of "Night of the Hunter" or "Blue Velvet."
But somehow, the movie misses that nightmare connection. Despite a near-great performance by Hurt as the father, and an initially intriguing job by Bernal, "The King" lacks the hypnotic chill of its American Gothic film models -- which would include (by Marsh's own claim) "Psycho" and "Badlands." "The King" is disturbing, but not haunting or soul-scorching, which is obviously what the filmmakers wanted.
Part of the failure may spring from a certain primal innocence in Bernal's screen persona. He has such a magnetic baby-face that it's hard for him to get the darker side of Elvis -- as the young Martin Sheen got the evil side of the James Dean persona in "Badlands." Bernal can hold the screen with a natural's ease, but he doesn't really convey the inner turbulence or ferocity Elvis needs in the last half.
Hurt, however, gets everything you could want from the Sandow character, dark edges and all. He nails the man's suburban messiah charisma, his ambivalent nature, the meanness, selfishness and goodness that wrestle in his spirit. When the pastor's sufferings commence, Hurt makes the character quite moving and always believable. The younger supporting actors -- James (of "Broken Flowers"), playing love rebel Malerie, and Dano (of "L.I.E.") as Christian teen rocker Paul -- give you milder doses of the same heartland ambiguity.
Southern religiosity is obviously one of the main wellsprings and political flash points of American culture, and "The King" strikes me as a movie that could have been extraordinary, one that maybe is trying too hard to be great. Robert Duvall, focusing on a similar subject, a Southern preacher with a dark past, touched the skies in "The Apostle." But "The King" simply unsettles and bothers us -- and it finally misses both the true terror and the twisted redemption it needs for its wicked song, a would-be "Heartbreak Hotel" of horror, to really chill our spines.
Directed by James Marsh; written by Marsh and Milo Addica; photographed by Eigil Bryld; edited by Jinx Godfrey; production designed by Sharon Lomofsky; music by Max Avery Lichtenstein; produced by Addica and James Wilson. A THINKFilm release; opens June 16. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (strong sexuality involving a teen, some violence and language).
Elvis Valderez -- Gael Garcia Bernal
Pastor David Sandow -- William Hurt
Malerie -- Pell James
Twyla -- Laura Harring
Paul -- Paul Dano
Elvis' girl -- Veronica Bernal
Bruno -- Milo Addica