The King Review
From the director of Wisconsin Death Trip comes a compelling religious allegory, a moralistic tale focusing on the return of the prodigal son to an urban wasteland. Set in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the film which marks Gael Garcia Bernal's English language debut, The King is a simple story told very, very well.
Young Elvis (Bernal) has just finished his three-year Navy commission and sets off to Texas in a bid to contact his biological father and make a fresh start with his life. Encountering Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt in electrifying form), his wife Twyla (Laura Harring of Mulholland Drive fame), their son Paul (The Girl Next Door's Paul Dano) and their daughter Malerie (played by a wonderful Pell James), Elvis attempts to integrate within this religious community whilst beginning to fall for Malerie.
However, things begin to go awry and the arid, urban landscape soon starts to resemble purgatory for these characters. Stranded in an isolated environment as they try to cling onto some sense of ethics and morals, the intelligent script by Milo Addica and director James Marsh is arguably more interested in the symbolic nature of the story's protagonists than individual characterisation; this is not a criticism, however, merely an observation that Addica and Marsh intended to make a modern fable instead of a pure character study. Having said that, collectively the performers have done a fantastic job of immersing themselves very naturally in their respective roles, with Hurt and James being worthy of particular praise. Hurt, for example, is an actor whose physicality shines through his performances and says things that words can never express – be it through a facial expression or a subtle gesture, in this film Hurt is able to convey the extent of Sandow's demons superbly. It should be noted, meanwhile, that Laura Harring is sadly not given enough to do – her character of Twyla is the most undeveloped of them all, and whilst she looks the part and compliments the rest of the cast, it is slightly anaemic.
It is important to realise that Marsh began his career as a documentarian and not a filmmaker working in the realms of fiction. As a result, he chooses to shoot his feature film debut with a slightly detached lens, a voyeuristic way to observe on the characters' actions and to never actively engage with them. This comfortably compliments the film's otherwise symbolic and rather grandiose nature, grounding the film with naturalistic, handheld camerawork that suggests, perhaps ominously, that this kind of story could realistically happen to any modern suburban family. Both Marsh and Addica have always dabbled with the concepts of family and religion (Addica's previous screenplays were Monster's Ball and Birth), and here they draw these two dynamics to the foreground and allow them to crash into each other alongside the arrival of young Elvis.
Gael Garcia Bernal should be commended for giving a very watchable performance – his American accent is note-perfect and he never looks lost amongst the proceedings – and I do agree with Marsh when he says that there is something slightly demonic about Bernal's physicality which fits in perfectly with the film's narrative. Similarly, special mention must also go to Paul Dano and his vocal skills, which seamlessly blend in with the film to create a haunting tune that captures many of the narrative's themes.
There is nothing particularly original about The King, but instead it is a film which is made extremely compelling by an assured screenplay, beautiful cinematography and engaging direction. The performances are, across the board, all excellent, and the film's denouement is fitting, if perhaps a little extreme.
Arriving on UK DVD courtesy of Tartan, the package is very good for what is essentially a very low-budget film. The menus are superbly designed; sadly no subtitles are provided during the main feature.
Presented in the correct widescreen ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the image looks good, although it's a little soft throughout; this is probably brought about by the film's low-budget, but nonetheless there is an occasional lack of sharpness in certain scenes. To make things worse, edge enhancement is present (something which is very noticeable on the opening credits), but it isn't distracting unless you place the image under very close scrutiny. On the plus side, the arid landscapes are reproduced well by a diverse colour palette, and there is a healthy – and natural – amount of grain present on the film image. In terms of audio, the film is served by both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, which are more than bombastic enough for what essentially amounts to a dialogue-driven film. Nevertheless, the soundstage is ambient and the front speakers present the audio clearly and crisply. A Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is also included.
Kicking off with one of the best audio commentaries I've heard for a while, co-writer/director James Marsh and co-writer/producer Milo Addica speak confidently and cogently throughout the film. Offering up production anecdotes, thematic analyses and general points of insight, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing what they had to say; incidentally, it was refreshing to hear their own criticisms of the film, proving that feature film directors do have the capacity to stand back from their work and point out their weaknesses. Admittedly most of these stem from too small a budget – which resulted in script cuts during shooting, potentially damaging continuity and development – but Marsh does also state which scenes he'd like to redo.
The next most substantive extra is an interview with Marsh and Addica, presented separately, which covers similar ground to the commentary. However, they are nonetheless interesting and worth watching. A group of deleted scenes, some rehearsal footage and the film's theatrical trailer round off the extra features.
A compelling pressure cooker of a film is presented on another very good disc courtesy of Tartan. Considering the label used to have such a bad reputation amongst DVD communities, it is very pleasing to see them pulling out all the stops to now release solid packages to support excellent films.