The King

In Texas, there are two men referred to as kings: Elvis and Jesus. Both figures are evoked in the subtly creepy drama “The King,” in which a man named Elvis threatens another man’s relationship with Jesus.

Elvis is the name of a young Mexican-American man (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who shows up in Corpus Christi after a three-year stint in the Navy. He’s looking for his father, whom he knows only from pictures and stories his mother told him, and finds that the man, David Sandow (William Hurt), is now a rock ‘n’ roll preacher with a large, profitable church and a wife and two kids.

David’s tryst with Elvis’ mother was before he became a Christian, and he wants nothing to do with the fruit of that fornication, nothing to remind him of his younger, more wanton days — certainly nothing that will make his congregation think any less of him. His wife, Twyla (Laura Harring), intuits who Elvis is — perhaps David once confessed to her his pre-conversion sins — but his children don’t.

The kids — Elvis’ half-siblings, of course — are both teenagers, Mallory (Pell James) and Paul (Paul Dano). Paul is frontman for the church’s in-house rock band and spends his time petitioning the school board to teach Intelligent Design in the classroom. He plans to attend a religious university and follow his father’s path as a minister.

Mallory, meanwhile, is naive and susceptible to the charms of Elvis, who begins an insidious campaign to woo her. David tells his daughter not to see the man, but he can’t tell her why, and being told not to see him just makes her want to see him more. But Elvis and Mallory are successful in keeping their relationship a secret, so when David has a change of heart regarding his bastard son, he’s able to welcome Elvis into his home and life without reservation.

If it sounds like the Sandow family is in for some tense times and harrowing drama, they are … and I haven’t even told you the big thing that happens at the film’s midpoint that adds an extra dimension to it. Director James Marsh, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Milo Addica (“Monster’s Ball”), craftily gives the film the look and feel of a regular ol’ drama, superbly acted and methodically (perhaps a little too slowly) told. It’s not until it’s over that you fully appreciate how emotionally suspenseful it was.

Elvis, smoothly and smilingly played by Bernal, ingratiates himself with the family like so many mysterious outsiders in movies before him, and it’s only gradually that we realize his true intentions. There comes a point where everyone has so many lies and secrets floating around that it’s only a matter of time before they to come out in a flurry of revelations and realizations. When that moment comes — well, no matter what anyone says, Elvis is NOT going to leave the building.

B+ (1 hr., 45 min.; R, a little nudity, some strong sexuality, brief violence.)