The most frustrating films are the ones that reach desperately for something great but fall just short of capturing it. In The King, his dark and twisted narrative debut, British director James Marsh's reach extends so far we can hear his muscles strain, yet what he's reaching for is never quite clear. He certainly throws in some interesting ideas, strong characterizations and a couple of sensational twists. But he obscures these virtues with muddled directing and a surprisingly shallow protagonist that even the talented García Bernal can't bring to life.
Elvis is a young man who returns from the Navy to seek out his estranged father (William Hurt). It turns out that his father is now a pastor with a family in Corpus Christi and wants nothing to do with his illegitimate son. Dejected, Elvis begins to exact revenge on the pastor, starting with the seduction of his daughter. To Marsh's credit, he develops the pastor's fundamentalist family with a sense of empathy and understanding that most indie films eschew in favor of cheap satire. Hurt's performance is especially affecting: He transforms what should have been a thankless role into a dynamic and complex one that transcends the usual stereotypes associated with Southern Baptists.
Elvis, however, remains a one-note sociopath who carries out the cruel acts with an oh-so-ironic boyish innocence. His lack of depth proves especially distracting as his revenge plans move past all rationality and venture into the realm of needless sadism. It feels as though Marsh wanted to propose a number of complicated questions to the audience but never took the time to think about them himself.