“Do you believe in God?” Elvis (Gael García Bernal) asks 16-year-old Malerie (Pell James), after she says his cursing bothers her. “Yes I do,” comes her certain answer. It’s that certainty that director James Marsh seems interested in challenging in The King, an accomplished but upsetting look at a demon visiting a family of true believers in Corpus Christi. Elvis is the son of a prostitute, a discharged sailor come to Texas in search of the father he never knew — David Sandow (William Hurt), a reformed philanderer who runs a cavernous church called Sanctuary. Marsh’s decision to portray Sandow as a doctrinarian who belittles his teenaged children and denies his own checkered past makes the events that transpire — as Elvis insinuates himself into the unsuspecting family in unsavory and ultimately devastating ways — feel punitive and mean-spirited. And yet there’s something fascinating in Bernal’s portrayal of a gentle monster who seems truly not to see his own evil, and in James’s depiction of the girl who submits easily to his ravishing, which is a kind of liberation. In context, the film-ending declaration “I need to get right with God” feels like the punchline to a very sick joke.
Originally published in the White Plains Times, October 20, 2006