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The King

Gael Garcia Bernal plays a twenty-one year old sailor named Elvis Valderez who's just been honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy. With his mother no longer alive, Elvis heads back to his hometown of Corpus Christi to seek out the father he never knew. All he has is the name his mother told him - David Sandow. Elvis soon discovers that Sandow (William Hurt) is the well-respected minister of a Baptist church. He is married and has two teenage children. Elvis follows Sandow home after hearing his Sunday sermon. Elvis boldly but politely introduces himself as Sandow's son and waits to see what kind of response he'll get. Sandow doesn't deny being his father but he's uncomfortable with this reminder from his past so he instructs Elvis to stay away from his family. But Elvis is taken by Sandow's shy young daughter Malerie (Pell James) who in turn is attracted to this handsome stranger.

Elvis seduces Malerie and as they grow more intimate, Elvis also manages to gain access into Sandow's family. But Elvis is not easy to read. You're never quite sure if he's genuinely fallen for Malerie or if he's just using her as a pawn in a more elaborate scheme he has to either infiltrate Sandow's life or seek some kind of revenge for having never been part of his family. But whatever his motives, the outcome proves to be unexpectedly violent.

The setting of the film - Corpus Christi - is the first clue the filmmakers provide in regards to the Biblical tone their film takes as it considers issues of sin and redemption. Written by Milo Addica ( Monster Ball, Birth ) and directed by James Marsh ( The Burger and the King, Wisconsin Death Trip ), the film offers a complex tale that ultimately tackles questions of faith. Some may take offense at its approach but others may enjoy its deliberate provocations. The film deals with two sinners and their sins. Sandow is a preacher who doesn't practice everything he preaches. Up until now, he has never had to confront the sins of his past, of his wild days before he was saved. But the arrival of Elvis prompts him to try and make amends for that. Elvis, on the other hand, has his sins in front of him as he breaks taboos and then commandments before seeking forgiveness and redemption. What may frustrate viewers, though, is that Elvis is an ambiguous character whose motives are often left to us to decipher.

Bernal gives Elvis a surface charm and appeal. His physical beauty, however, masks some ugly demons inside. He constantly keeps us guessing yet his actions - even when they prove shocking - play out as believable. He gives a mesmerizing performance that rivets us without always answering all our questions. (On a technical note, he also employs a flawless American accent.) Hurt (in a role that Sam Shepherd was originally cast) is a man who must come to terms with his own sins as well as those of his son, but he does so at a painful cost. There's a Biblical sense of reaping what you sow at work in The King . In very different ways, these two men test the notion of faith and redemption. Sandow initially doesn't practice what he preaches but he reaches a point where he can admit to his flaws and can humble himself before his congregation. But Elvis seems to seek redemption almost as a provocation to his father, as if he's saying I have sinned mightily and I dare you and your church to find a way to forgive me.

The King (rated R for language, sexual content and violence) has its flaws but its passion and intensity make it a provocative and fascinating work.

Companion viewing: Don't Tempt Me (with Gael Garcia Bernal as the Devil); Bad Education, Birth, Wisconsin Death Trip -----

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