The most frustrating films are the ones that reach desperately for something great, but fall just short of capturing it. In his dark and twisted narrative debut, The King
, British director James Marsh's reach extends so far we can hear his muscles strain, yet what he's reaching for is never quite clear. He certainly throws in some interesting ideas, strong characterizations, and a couple of sensational twists, courtesy of screenwriter Milo Addica (Monster’s Ball)
. However, he obscures these aspects with muddled directing and a surprisingly shallow protagonist that even the talented García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries
, Y Tu Mamá También
)can’t bring to life. The protagonist in question is Elvis, a young man who returns from the navy to seek out his estranged father (Hurt). It turns out that his father is now a pastor with a family in Corpus Christi (despite the obviously symbolic setting, the film was actually shot in Austin), and predictably, he wants nothing to do with his illegitimate son. Dejected, Elvis begins to exact revenge on the pastor, starting by seducing his daughter and finishing with sadistic extremes that would make Lady Vengeance
director Park Chan-wook proud. To Marsh’s credit, he develops Pastor Sandow’s fundamentalist family with a sense of empathy and understanding that most indie films eschew in favor of cheap satire. Hurt’s performance is especially affecting: He transforms what should have been a thankless role into a dynamic and complex one that transcends the usual stereotypes associated with Southern Baptists. But, while Marsh pays close attention to his supporting characters, Elvis remains a one-note sociopath who carries out the cruel acts with an oh-so-ironic boyish innocence. The usually reliable García Bernal alternates among about three facial expressions, and often it seems that he too is puzzled by his character’s simplicity. His lack of depth proves especially distracting as his revenge plans move past all rationality and venture into the realm of needless sadism. It’s hard to pinpoint Marsh’s attitude toward the characters or the events that unfold, and how audience members react will depend heavily on the religious convictions they bring in with them. However, the many possible ways to read the film might be more fruitful if Marsh’s direction was more assured. For much of the film, it feels as though he’s simply tossing out vague symbols, religious allusions, non sequiturs, and shocking transgressions, hoping something will click. His choices about what to reveal and what to leave ambiguous feel arbitrary, and the ending especially falls short. A profound or thought-provoking conclusion may have helped mend the film’s inconsistency, or at least made García Bernal’s character seem significant. Instead, it feels as though Marsh wanted to propose a number of complicated questions to the audience, but never took the time to think about them himself.