The Elephant King — writer/director Seth Grossman’s 2008 feature film released in 2009 on DVD — is about two naive young Westerners that head to the Far East in search of adventure and inner-peace. It’s a story that’s been told countless times before and, like many of its predecessors, The Elephant King will anger those in the East who are tired of seeing their home used as nothing more than a backdrop for the growing-pains of a couple of white, middle-class boys from overseas. That’s really not worth dwelling on here though, because any latent Orientalism would be but one of this film’s myriad flaws in terms of plot, theme and character development, all of which unfortunately ruin a movie that has plenty of visual delights to offer the viewer.
The Elephant King‘s protagonist is Oliver (Tate Ellington), an introverted, socially-inept young fellow who lives with his parents in New York City and washes dishes at a restaurant. His brother, Jake (Jonno Roberts), is Oliver’s polar-opposite: the kind of guy who flies off to Thailand, ostensibly to study anthropology, and never comes home, shacking up in a motel where he spends his days in a wash of drugs, booze and women.
Unfortunately Jake has left a hefty list of legal and financial woes back in the States for his parents to deal with, and so his mother (Ellen Burstyn) — who is coping with her wayward son thanks to her husband’s “boys-will-be-boys” dismissal of Jake’s antics — agrees to let Oliver visit his brother in Chiang Mai, in hopes that the younger sibling will be able to persuade the older to come home and face the music.
But Oliver has been itching for a chance to get away, and it isn’t long before he decides he wants to stay in the East permanently, hanging out with Jake and participating in crazy hi-jinks like buying a baby elephant to hang out with them by the pool. Jake introduces her to Lek (Florence Faivre), a beautiful Thai bartender who seems pretty interested in the newly-arrived American. Despite her limited English, he feels a connection to her that he couldn’t find with anyone back home, and she appears to reciprocate, even if she also can’t stop staring at the young Thai man who sings and plays guitar at her bar every night.
The tourist havens of South East Asia have been shown through a Westerner’s eyes many a time before, but The Elephant King still manages to enchant with its racing shots through the bar-districts and quiet views of the surrounding farms and temples. The camera doesn’t sugarcoat anything, detailing the foliage-swamped beauty of ancient Siamese architecture and the tired, powder-caked faces of the women who work in the local brothels with equal precision. It’s a low-budget picture, but there is plenty of style in the camera-work and editing, whether seen during Jake’s frenzied drug binges or Oliver’s surreal day-dreams.
It’s a shame, then, that the film’s visual successes greatly surpass the impact made by the movie’s plot. The story has an obvious theme — that there is no permanent salvation to be found in running way from one’s problems, and that Oliver and Jake are naive to believe anything else — but it is made clear more through viewer familiarity with similar tales than through any nuanced character or plot development by the script.
The main issue is that Oliver and Jake don’t really exhibit many of the traits or changes that the plot wants to suggest. Jake is an asshole who also cares a little about his younger brother, and remains so throughout the film. While the plot tries to imply that his darker impulses are taking him over and bringing him closer to the brink as time passes, he actually spends most of the movie bullying the same people and indulging in the same vices, always a bit of a loose cannon, but never becoming much more dangerous that he is when Oliver arrives. If he’d developed into something more (or less), he would have been an interesting character to follow, but as it is, he’s neither as charismatic nor as fascinating as the filmmakers seem to think he is.
Oliver, on the other hand, is almost painful to watch. While he seems to attract an unlikely amount of female interest, he is in no way a Josh Schwartz type beta-male. He’s a bumbling nerd with awkward posture, not a snarky genius played by an underwear model. It’s hard to feel sorry for him when he eventually gets his heart broken, as the viewer will have guessed at the motives behind Lek’s unlikely interest in him around the time of their first stumbling dance at the bar.
Lek herself is probably the most interesting character in the film, Faivre’s stunning appearance lending credulity to the brothers’ obsession with her, and her sweet but self-assured nature making her more likable and relatable to the audience than her white-boy admirers, despite the fact that she may technically be the most deceitful and self-serving person in the picture. Of course, her mercenary outlook on life will be an easy target of criticism from those annoyed by the film’s portrayal of Thailand – and its people – as just another deceptively beautiful place for good American boys to lose their innocence.
The film has some other odd motifs that don’t really do much to advance the plot or theme. Oliver is a writer, apparently, but the narration from the book he is supposedly writing about Jake’s adventures only pops up once or twice, and is distracting rather than illuminating. The brother’s purchase of an elephant and inability to take care of it is supposed to provide both the film’s title and an allegory for the brothers’ own incompetence, but it comes off as just another attempt to add some unrealistic zaniness to the proceedings.
The DVD version comes with one extra feature besides the original trailer, which is a short documentary about the making of the film. By watching it, the viewer will learn that everyone involved took this film pretty seriously and is proud to be part of it; that Seth Grossman is considered to be quite the comedian by his cast and crew; and that The Elephant King producer Emanuel Michael is apparently irresistible to beautiful, young model-types (Florence Faivre, for example).
Unfortunately, no one explains why someone also made the decision not to provide subtitles for the many, many scenes in the main feature that are spoken entirely in Thai. (This makes sense exactly once — when Lek is having a conversation with Jake which has important connotations that remain mysterious until the film’s finale – but is simply annoying the rest of the time. Lek’s relationship with the young guitarist, for example, seems like it could make for a lovely contrast to the ugliness of her other dealings with the world, but the non-Thai speaking viewer will never know if that is so, as we’re not allowed to find out what they actually talk about when they’re together.)
The Elephant King is just the latest in a long line of books and films that use Thailand or some other developing-country with appealing scenery as the setting for a Westerner to discover who he or she truly is inside, and while such portrayals continue a problem that has been going on since Heart of Darkness, the fact is that young, Western boys and girls really do leave their homelands in countless numbers every year to seek adventure and romance in other parts of the world.
If The Elephant King had something new to say about these travellers, or a story to tell about them that hadn’t yet been heard, it might achieved what works like Alex Garland’s The Beach have in the past. That is, it could have offered a compelling story that provided enough insight into its characters to somewhat make up for its deficiencies in the treatment of its locale. But with its vague themes and barely-formed characters, The Elephant King does none of this, and instead leaves its viewers with a few lingering memories of its dazzling setting, but a bad taste in their mouths.