Trade bible Variety called The King morally "noxious", so it gets four stars almost on principle. The film will wind people up and the makers probably enjoy stirring, but there's sincerity to its shocks; more thought than desire to affront. The tricky thing is to discuss it without revealing its surprises.
Set in the buckle of the US Bible belt - a town, Corpus Christi, whose very name means "body of Christ" - The King calls on Testaments Old and New, clashing vengeance with redemption, a God of Anger with a God of Love. It's a stark parable, a challenge, for people who believe in forgiveness for all. How much sin can the blood of Jesus wash away?
As he showed with Birth, co-writer Milo Addica appears to have a knack for unsettling stories and provocative ambiguity, but this may prove a better, more insistent film than even that very impressive collaboration with Jonathan Glazer. It's certainly grubbier and more troubling than the Oscar-wooing Monster's Ball; more prepared to stick in the throat - and the memory. Director/ co-writer James Marsh is British, yet brings assurance and familiarity to this depiction of small-town America, an understanding of a society bound by boredom, beauty and charisma. It makes sense when you discover he's from Cornwall. There's a refreshing lack of condescension in the film's attitude to Hurt's Man of Faith and the people who look to him; an unusual sense of how demagoguery and decency can co-exist.
Much credit must go to Hurt, whose Yahweh-or-the-high-way community leader must face the ultimate test of faith, triggered by the arrival of the offspring of a sin long since committed and forgotten. The film asks whether we can escape our nature... or the consequences of our actions.
Bernal is brilliant, too. There's steel beneath the prettiness, an implacability that can prove chilling as his prodigal son quietly goes about his father's business. His magnetism proves essential as the film explores the darkest of territory beneath the Texan sunshine (evocatively captured by director of photography Eigil Bryld). His scenes with Pell James - luminous as Innocence Awaiting Corruption - give The King its haunting heart, with the filmmakers not shying away from conveying her emotion for this short, handsome stranger. Writing a spoiler-free review of material so twisty and twisted is a rather thankless way to convey its power. Prepare to be challenged, infuriated, gripped and entertained. And prepare for The King's images and ideas to flicker in your mind's eye long after Elvis has left the building.
By turns bewildering and brilliant, with Hurt and Bernal delivering indelible turns in a story drenched in blood, threat and fears.