IT WAS AN INDIE DREAM IN THE MAKING: A promising director named James Marsh, known mostly for the obscure quasi-documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (1999), cobbled together financing for a thriller called The King, about a drifter who terrorizes a Texas preacher and his family. The director landed two notable names—Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt—to play the lead parts. He shot the movie in Austin and Corpus Christi in the summer of 2004, around the same time Bernal’s star was skyrocketing on the strength of The Motorcycle Diaries and Bad Education. The following spring, he earned a berth at the Cannes Film Festival. Because it was one of only a handful of new American works to premiere there—and because it was Bernal’s first English-language feature—the film attracted the attention of just about every important distributor and critic in attendance.
And then, well, sometimes those indie dreams quickly curdle into nightmares. “The King is a noxious film morally and an aggravating one dramatically,” wrote Variety’s Todd McCarthy. He went on to describe the movie—which traffics in arson, fratricide, and repeated acts of incest—as “entirely unpalatable” and “unjustifiably ugly and pointless.” From there, the reception only soured further: The Toronto and Sundance film festivals—de rigueur stops for an American indie after a premiere at Cannes—both rejected The King. Distribution companies major and minor turned it down before it was finally acquired by ThinkFilm. (“They were the only ones who would have us,” Marsh told me.) It opened in New York City last month and will begin trickling into theaters nationwide (including ones in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio) throughout June. But by this point, the British-born, New York City—based Marsh seems resigned to the fact that finding an audience isn’t going to be easy. “I know that this isn’t a film for everybody,” he said, “but I just feel it was being slightly picked on.”
Let the bad buzz stop right here: The King is the most brazen and original Texas-based movie in years, an insistently creepy mood piece that also dares to confront perhaps the defining issue of our time: that vast and ever-widening gap between Christians and secularists in this country. The movie takes place in contemporary Corpus Christi, where a young man named Elvis Valderez (Bernal), recently discharged from the Navy, makes his way to a church presided over by a born-again minister named David Sandow (Hurt). Elvis is David’s illegitimate son, the offspring of an affair David had with a Mexican woman in the years before he found Jesus. Elvis wants David to acknowledge his paternity, but David—terrified that his flock will spurn him if these sins come to light—refuses to budge. All of which leads Elvis to plot a bizarre and sickening revenge scheme designed to put his father’s faith to the ultimate test.
As this plot description probably lays bare, The King is often brutal viewing, especially the scenes in which Elvis heartlessly manipulates David’s lovesick teenage daughter (Pell James). And because Marsh refuses to pass any kind of moral judgment on Elvis’s actions—and instead watches with the same nonplussed detachment you’d find in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, one of Marsh’s acknowledged influences—a lot of people assume the director is attacking fundamentalist Christianity right alongside his main character. But there’s a lot more going on in The King than a knee-jerk liberal broadside against red-state America. In fact, what makes the movie so daring is that Marsh doesn’t take sides—or, more specifically, he plays each side against the other. He shows us the suspicion and enmity with which fundamentalists treat the less faithful among us and vice versa.
Just watch for some of the wonderfully spot-on details Marsh captures here: the Sandows’ immaculately kept neighborhood, for instance, which is populated entirely by white Christians just like them; or David’s teenage son, who composes Christian rock songs and plans on attending preacher’s college at Baylor University. These people exist in a self-contained, self-sufficient world, and any interloper (especially one, like Elvis, with brown skin) is considered a threat. For his part, Elvis looks upon the Sandows with vacant-eyed contempt: a community of ascetics desperately craving an injection of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; a gleaming, all-American surface just waiting to be shattered. Something’s gotta give, but Marsh never once tips his hand. Whereas another indie filmmaker might have lapsed into easy condescension toward the Sandows, Marsh treats them seriously and thoughtfully. If anything, he even goes out of his way to suggest that—just maybe—their faith really does earn them the moral high ground. (Remember: It’s the nonbeliever in the movie—the vengeful, lustful, envious, and enraged Elvis—who causes all the destruction.) You walk out of The King with many more questions than answers, particularly about whether Elvis’s final plea for forgiveness is truly sincere or a last-ditch effort to expose the Christian characters as hypocrites. But you also leave eager to take on this movie’s many challenges and mysteries—considerably more than you can say for Mission: Impossible III.
So why so little love for The King? Granted, culturally engaged, politically confrontational movies have never been easy sells, especially if they’re also steeped in emotional and physical violence. But in decades past, works like Marsh’s have nonetheless managed to have a major impact: Think Bonnie and Clyde in the sixties, Straw Dogs in the seventies, or Blue Velvet in the eighties. Alas, those days now seem far gone. The King follows on the heels of Tommy Lee Jones’s equally astringent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, another extraordinary effort that languished in distribution limbo after its Cannes premiere last year (and never did find much of an audience). Maybe it’s because both of these movies too radically challenge viewers’ notions of what contemporary Texas is supposed to look and feel like: The sweeping vistas and Marlboro Men have now been replaced with Sam’s Club—size houses of worship, bored suburbanites, and widespread spiritual malaise. (And, indeed, if only to see how precisely Marsh photographs the wide, wide suburban Texas streets or the imposing churches that line the long, flat stretches of highway, The King is more than worth your attention.)
Or maybe it’s just that a lot of people want to go on believing in the fantasy that—with the exception of a few hot-button political skirmishes over abortion and gay marriage—we’re basically a united nation. And that any movie that suggests otherwise is going to be tarred and feathered as an enemy of the state. The King—intelligent, inflammatory, and completely of this moment—deserves much better.