Burdens of Meaning
Elvis (Gael García Bernal) first appears on a Navy ship. As other sailors trade japes in an out-of-focus background, he washes his face, only briefly checking his reflection. He knows who he is, or at least puts on a good show of knowing. Indeed, his self-display, alternating between sanguine and uncertain, will make Elvis a cipher for the film, less a character than a device to expose social prejudices and cruel social orders.
Like the odd child who appears in Birth, the last release scripted by Milo Addica (he’s also responsible for Monster’s Ball), Elvis bears burdens of meaning. Not only does his name speak to the film’s ironic title, but his actions seem designed to expose others’ motives rather than his own. Though he seems impelled by the memory of his dead Mexican mother and trained to deliver a certain calculated violence, his power—most visible as the Navy-issued rifle he carries with him—is illusory.
This illusion has nothing to do with his uniform, but everything to do with his sense of manhood “achieved.” While Elvis clearly owes something to the service, but understands the limits of his affiliation: as soon as he walks off the ship for the last time, he’s accosted by the sailor on watch, who tells him he must salute the flag. “I’m a civilian,” half-smiles Elvis, no longer beholden after three years in, and now, on his way to get laid (“I just got out of the Navy and I just got paid,” he explains to his date) and, most importantly, to find his father.
That would be Pastor Sandow (William Hurt), first appearing on stage, where he introduces his flock’s “newest members,” a lineup of babies carried by their beaming, Stepfordy moms. An erstwhile sinner who, he eventually admits, once “used” women and paid them, Sandow is now a self-righteous, uptight preacher in Corpus Christi. His congregation is dedicated (they leave “prayer requests in a box at night), his property tidy (the freshly mowed lawn is adorned by a cross-shaped sign announcing the week’s themes and activities). “Let God’s love flow through you,” Sandow instructs his people, the camera panning their pale, pinkish faces, placid and receptive.
When Elvis arrives, his newly purchased 1969 Mercury Cougar seeming to float in Sandow’s rearview mirror, the pastor is shocked. “It was a long time ago,” he says of Elvis’ mother, before he became a Christian and married to make his current family. When Elvis presses his father for acknowledgement and time, Sandow becomes flustered and officious: right now is “an inconvenient time,” he sputters, suggesting Elvis call him later, so they can “set up a time to meet and talk properly.” As if to show his son what he’s disrupting by his existence, Sandow introduces his family, perched on their seats in his SUV: hard-believing wife Twyla (Laura Harring), aspiring preacher son Paul (Paul Dano), and quietly rebellious daughter Malerie (Pell James). While Paul is right away bothered by the interloper, Malerie tentatively welcomes him (Elvis spotted her before the prayer service, and told her she was “beautiful”): here’s a man who is not her father or her brother, a man who seems a way out.
Elvis agrees to go away for the moment, then finds work delivering pizzas to pay rent on his motel room. While he’s biding his time, Twyla frets: “It was bound to happen,” she tells her husband, rejecting his efforts to comfort her. Twyla’s pain appears earnest and longstanding, a fear of upset that she maintains in order to keep back what’s worse, the unknown. Though only sketched in James Marsh’s film, her underlying distrust of her husband provides the frame for what goes wrong for the children, theirs and Sandow’s other son.
While the most obvious reading of Elvis has him playing a familiar “return of the repressed,” the brown-skinned sign of past sins come to trouble the complacent white man, The King isn’t quite so simple as that. Elvis’ vengeance seems more accidental than well-considered. At the same time, his seduction of Malerie occurs in small, clichéd steps: he offers to show her his car, takes her out for fast food (for which she pays), performs cunnilingus in her bedroom while her parents are slumbering down the hall, and displays his Navy rifle drill with muted pride.
Even as Malerie is set up as a vehicle for Elvis’ sly revenge, she has her own reasons to seek escape from her father. Unlike her silently seething mother, she resists his essentialist vision of men and women, a vision passed on to his son: when dad and Paul hunt deer with arrows, Malerie’s assigned to skin the catch, then clean up the blood off the garage floor, her mop slamming at the red splotches as Paul puts away his weapon, warning her not to touch it. The glare she shoots him explains more than any other moment in the movie. When she sneaks out of her home at night, a smudge of her mother’s red lipstick on her mouth, she’s less interested in Elvis per se than in the options she might have discovered, a way not to be Twyla, to reject her father on the sly.
As much as Malerie’s story recalls other rebellious movie girls (not least being Badlands’ Holly, with whom she shares a naïve, father-delivered morality), her brother also echoes any number of boys with faith in their fathers. (And here, Elvis’ own rudimentary faith becomes a perverse and logical permutation.) Paul’s sense of entitlement shapes his determination to “protect” his sister and his destiny.
Scheduled to go to bible college in the fall, he drives his shiny new graduation present car around town even as he continues in his effort to bring intelligent design into his high school’s science curriculum. When he and his group are ridiculed by classmates and turned down by the school board, he’s unflustered, secure in his knowledge that such persecution signals his rightness. And that’s the trouble for the myopic boys in The King: they only see the worlds built for them.
The effects of such myopia are occasionally rendered in vivid detail. Alone in his motel room, Elvis eats a cheese sandwich cut into squares; watching Malerie walk away from his car, he contemplates her thin summer skirt, receding into the darkness of her front lawn; and when Sandow takes Elvis for target practice at the archery range, they share a brief moment of understanding, appreciating their mutual accuracy. But The King is also limited in its vision, italicizing its judgments needlessly. The most egregious of such scenes has Elvis grappling with a moral dilemma—or at least a legal one, as he’s trying to dispose of evidence of a crime—and he catches the eye of an actual clown, wandering the grimly empty streets at night, raggedy and sad-faced. While Elvis’ briefly startled face isn’t precisely legible (he might be fearful, regretful, resentful, or some spiraling combination), your reading is pretty much ordained.
The King - trailer