You don’t have to be a Southern Christian to think that, with rare exceptions (The Apostle, Junebug), they get a bum rap even in ”humane” indie films. In The King, Elvis (Gael GarcÍa Bernal), a twentyish drifter recently discharged from the Navy, arrives in Corpus Christi, Tex., where he looks up the stranger who unknowingly fathered him — a minister (William Hurt) whose cozy big house, ’70s facial hair, and laid-back air of pious ”generosity” paint him as a hypocrite begging to be brought down. Elvis is just the guy to do it. He seduces the minister’s daughter, a beautiful 16-year-old zombie-waif (Pell James) in parochial-school plaid, and that’s nothing compared with what lies in store for the holy man’s other son (Paul Dano), a gangly teenage rock & roller and crusader for intelligent design.
GarcÍa Bernal, who can be vivid (Bad Education) and also a bit of a lox (The Motorcycle Diaries), gives a physically robust performance, but as a character, Elvis the placidly troubled sociopath holds even less water than the Edward Norton cowboy in Down in the Valley, a film that The King bears a remarkable (if accidental) similarity to. Just about the only way to make sense of the film is to view its Christian family the way that the director, James Marsh, does — with a contempt masquerading as social criticism. William Hurt, for one, deserves better. He makes the minister a fallen man whose every instinct tells him to keep getting up.