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.