The King (15)

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The Independent Culture

There are moments of genuinely disquieting strangeness in James Marsh's feature debut, a southern Gothic about secrets tragically withheld. Its brooding atmosphere can be partly attributed to co-writer Milo Addica, who also co-authored Monster's Ball and Birth; this guy is plainly a specialist in the dysfunctional American family.

It stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Elvis, a young serviceman who, recently discharged from the navy, travels down to Corpus Christi, a small town in Bible Belt Texas, to seek out the man who fathered him. He turns out to be David Sandow (William Hurt), now a pastor with a wife and two teenage children, Malerie (Pell James) and Paul (Paul Dano). Ashamed of his former life, Sandow gives Elvis the brush-off, a fateful decision for all concerned, especially once Elvis seduces Malerie, and Paul gets wind of their romance.

Marsh handles this tale of forbidden love with such restraint that when, an hour in, an act of senseless violence interrupts the calm, one feels the film suddenly beginning to lose altitude. Amazingly, it survives, clinging to the fragile bond of trust that Elvis and Malerie have established, flying in the face of all reason.

The performances are outstanding: Bernal and James get right under the skin of the ill-starred lovers, and Hurt as the troubled pastor is terrific, far better than his flashy Oscar-nominated turn as the mobster in A History of Violence. All the same, because the milieu is so delicately observed - the lonely swamp where the lovers tryst, the jolly Baptist church where the pastor lords it over his flock - the subsequent change of mood seems just too wilful and grotesque. A little less Gothic might have made it a lot more convincing.