While watching James Marsh’s forthcoming The King, I felt a stinging familiarity, if not in direct narrative, then in tone and milieu, a naggingly common sense of self-importance mixed with a ponderous regionalism. A Grand Guignol incest and murder melodrama directed with a delicacy that’s just pompus in its inability to cite its own overheated goofiness. But, no, this is the stuff of Faulkner, Marsh seems to tell us with every hush and whisper. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to learn, after watching it, that it was co-written by none other than Milo Addica, who’s increasingly becoming, dare I say, prime suspect number one in the denigration of modern movie drama into a series of pompous literary or religious references and totems.
Co-writer of (excuse me while I swallow back my own vomit) Monster’s Ball, and (chuckle) Birth, Addica now puts forth The King, which presents Gael Garcia Bernal, sporting, I think, an American accent, as an intense young ex-Navy recruit who, atfer discharge, tracks down his father (William Hurt), an evangelist preacher in Corpus Christi who had discarded him years before. Of course, this being a Southern Gothic that means to dissect religious hypocrisy by regurgitating Christian iconography for its own twisted insight, Bernal’s character, named Elvis, is not a human being, but an insidious representation of all the snarling rage that his father has repressed. Hurt’s new family, well played by Laura Harring, Pell James, and Paul Dano, are the ones who pay for Hurt’s past transgressions, and Bernal, basically a manifestation of a long-ago abortion, doesn’t react, act, or behave as much as act out metaphor as the script sees fit. Despite its twists and turns, it’s all very mechanical and laborious.
In fact, one look at Addica’s oeuvre thus far clues you in to his rather shallow literary conceits: Monster’s Ball was a pathetic racist juvenilia in the guise of a “progressive” race relations drama, like something Paul Haggis would come up with after reading Carson McCullers; that Kubrick cumshot Birth is one of the decade’s most risible art-house bamboozles thus far, a blank slate onto which one can project any number of hypotheses about “faith” and “reality” but actually might be about…well, nothing whatsoever; The King at least doesn’t settle for easy ambiguity, but it suffocates in its own self-consciously literary aspirations. It’s the kind of film that serious actors sign up for because of the meaty dramatics they get to act out, and the dearth of anything coming from the studios that isn’t geared at the tween set. Yet the content in The King might as well come out of a teen fiction, with an illustration of tall grass and/or a heart-shaped locket on the cover.