Early criticisms of James Marsh's grim family drama The King seem to center on its take on Christianity, as if one character's hypocrisies amount to a national referendum on the verities of religion. In an era where personal belief so heavily influences public policy, both in America and abroad, and the debate over what makes a good Christian is as nationally pertinent as the debate over what makes a good politician, any strong perspective on belief can be both suspect and dangerous. But judging The King solely by its look at one Christian means dismissing the rest of its powerful story, which echoes the dread-soaked likes of In The Bedroom and The Virgin Suicides as an examination of the human heart as well as the divine one.
Y Tu Mamá También costar Gael García Bernal drives The King as "Elvis," a genial-seeming, self-contained young man fresh out of the Navy and off to Corpus Christi, Texas to track down William Hurt, the father he's never known. Marsh, the British documentarian behind Wisconsin Death Trip and The Team, gives Bernal's trip such a low-key, incident-light, road-movie flow that it's hard to tell when the story actually starts, but the turning point comes when Bernal meets Hurt, who immediately spurns him. Now the prosperous pastor of a large church, with a brittle wife and two fragile, naïve teenage children (Pell James and Paul Dano), Hurt wants no reminder of his pre-Christian past, let alone an illegitimately conceived, half-Hispanic, incontrovertibly human one. Everything that follows from Hurt's knee-jerk reaction to Bernal's arrival drops as naturally, quietly, and inevitably as falling snow, but it's still endlessly surprising and excruciating to watch.
Marsh's narrative feature debut still feels something like a documentary, thanks to its long takes, measured pace, and hushed, naturalistic views of the world, but also thanks to uniformly terrific performances. Hurt still stands as one of Hollywood's best when it comes to projecting intense, simultaneous waves of sincerity and self-serving hypocrisy, but Bernal is the film's heart. His hard, knowing mien contrasts with his opaque friendliness to make his intentions a riveting mystery, and contrasts with James and Dano's soft, gormless faces to make him devastating even at his kindest. The King's perception of religion is hardly friendly, but it's only one aspect of a terrific drama, one that ultimately admits that people can be as much of a terrifying mystery as their creator.