In James Marsh's ``The King," the usually wonderful Gael Garcia Bernal is all wrong for the role of Elvis Valderez, an honorably discharged Navy soldier who heads to Corpus Christi, Texas, to meet his father for the first time.
The part calls for a shadowy type with a shaky state of mind. Yet Bernal isn't a complex man of darkness here. Likably boyish, he's more Hanson than Manson.
Carlos Carrera's ``The Crimes of Father Amaro" and Pedro Almodovar's ``Bad Education " showed us there is lurid greatness in the actor. But Marsh, whose movie is nothing if not lurid, can't tap it.
The first few scenes of ``The King" tease us into hoping Bernal might be more than his pretty face -- or that he'll be using it to a good end. By the time the opening credits are over, Elvis has sexed a girl, bought a car, and checked into a motel. Not much later he visits the big roadside church where his estranged father, David Sandow (William Hurt), preaches.
After David's sermon, Elvis introduces himself, and David graciously acknowledges the stranger as a mistake he made in another life : He's family man now. He introduces the kid to his wife (Laura Harring), his college-bound son, Paul (Paul Dano), and his 16-year-old daughter, Malerie (Pell James).
But he doesn't explain to the kids who Elvis is, which from the standpoint of screenwriting is convenient. It allows the virginal Malerie to accept her half-brother's invitation to sit with him in his car, in a stream, and on his bed without the messy moral tangle.
The movie's sense of simple Christian life feels sincere and mercifully ordinary. There is deer hunting, Christian rock, and some business about Paul's attempts to get his public school to teach intelligent design that never escalates into righteousness. Suspense is built around the siblings' hormonal attraction: Will they get caught?
The movie's first half-hour or so, in fact, unfolds with such doomed resplendence that you're eager to see what Marsh and co-writer Milo Addica are up to. Sadly, they spend the remaining 60 minutes dunking the film into inexplicable grisliness.
The director doesn't appear to know what to do with the movie's relationships. ``The King" confuses sweetness and violence in ways that seem as desperate as some of the characters. The final terrible 20 minutes are a real shame because the film seems bound for a conflict of Biblical proportions. But Elvis's intentions remain foggy. What does he want from his father? Where the story demands confrontation, we get vagueness and whimsy.
Bernal can't shed any light on the matter. He's played morally unsettled men before, but Marsh doesn't bring a sense of torment or menace out of Bernal the way other directors have. Hurt fares better. He makes sure his solemn hypocrite is an intimidating one, too.
As Malerie, James is the movie's one wonder, putting across hormonal bliss and religious trepidation at the same time. She's like Scarlett Johansson with the husk peeled off. Which is to say she's a pretty girl we can relate to. When Malerie tells Elvis, ``We're going to hell," you can feel the flames jumping at her feet.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.