“We’re going to hell!”
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Elvis, a young man just out of the Navy who travels to Texas in search of the father he has yet to meet. Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt) is less than enthusiastic about his estranged son showing up after all these years and more concerned about the reaction his children, and maybe more importantly his Church, will have to his self-entitled sinful past. After their brief encounter, Pastor Sandow tells his wife and kids not to ever talk to “that man”. Elvis drives away disappointed and feeling unwanted, but something else is inside him, something dark…
The opening segment shows Elvis leaving his ship, buying a used car, sleeping with a hooker and visiting his father’s Church, where he bumps into Malerie, the cute 16 year old daughter of Pastor Sandow. Immediately we know that something is going to happen here, since they both have that lingering look in their eyes. This is where we’re first introduced to Sandow and his Church. It’s a typical family friendly community offering songs, friendship and the love from God, complete with it’s own rock band, who just happen to be headed up by Sandow’s son Paul (Paul Dano) and a giant, eye-catching cross replaying messages in electronic red lights.
Elvis, oblivious to his father’s subtle shun, visits Malerie at her home and the two enjoy a day of fast food and awkward silence. It’s clear Malerie is falling for Elvis and it’s not long before they’re in bed together in his rented motel room. Ok, so that’s the first shock. I thought Elvis might have to work a little bit harder to seduce Malerie but it’s obvious she’s been harbouring some pent up anger at her strict father (although that only becomes evident later). I use the word “strict” loosely here. Yes, he is man of God and lives by the Bible but he’s far from being a horrible father. He has his rules but at no point does he overstep the mark or make us, the viewers, believe he treats his home like a cage for his loved ones. Malerie engages in a secret relationship with Elvis in what seems more of an act of rebellion than of love. At first we’re happy for the two of them sneaking off, spending time together, but that soon changes.
Paul, Malerie’s brother, witnesses Elvis leaving the Sandow residence late one night and follows him back to his motel room. He warns Elvis that his father won’t be happy about the secret relationship and that he should stop seeing her. To his credit he does this with the utmost respect and politeness but Elvis doesn’t reciprocate. Things get nasty and the night ends with Elvis dumping Paul’s dead body into a lake on the outskirts of town. Shock number two!
I’ve seen movies like this before. Good guy just wants to be loved, doesn’t get his way and lashes out. Good guy turns out to be evil incarnate. Well this doesn’t exactly follow that cliché to the letter but it’s not far off the mark. However, I never saw this coming this time around. I don’t know whether it was Garcia Bernal’s quiet, understated performance or the overly subtle and simple writing that precedes the murder scene, but at no point did I think that Elvis was going to turn out to be a killer.
From this point on the movie changes and we begin to witness different sides to the main characters. William Hurt really excels in portraying a man of importance struggling to deal with the sudden “disappearance” of his soon-to-be-off-to-college son. His silence is deafening, his mind racing with questions. The realisation hits that Paul has ran away, longing for his own freedom after years of pressure from his father. If only he knew. If only they all knew…
And it’s not long before Malerie does know. Sandow, full of deep regret after losing Paul, contacts Elvis and offers reconciliation. He and Elvis end up bonding quickly and in a surprising turn of events, probably due to a desire to hide his shame, Sandow offers Paul’s old bedroom to Elvis. He now has a new family and soon after, Elvis admits the truth to Malerie about the incident with Paul, which she accepts coldly.
Elvis becomes a model son. Attending church services and enjoying family nights in front of the television, but there’s another twist in the tale. Malerie becomes pregnant. Shortly after, Sandow admits his past sins during a sermon. Matched with the revelation that her father is also Elvis’s father (and her half-brother!) Malerie begins to become uncomfortable with the whole situation, and rightly so. Elvis, having recently cemented his position with the family after saving Twyla (Mrs. Sandow) in an incident were she plays chicken with oncoming traffic, suspects Malerie’s change of mood. And guess what, he doesn’t approve.
While I did enjoy the movie, I must admit that I was left with a sour taste in my mouth come the end. The cinematography is beautiful and the delicate soundtrack is perfect. The acting is stellar throughout, especially Hurt and Pell James who plays Malerie. Hurt perfectly sums up his character in each scene with one look and James, despite being 12 years older than her character, can apply naivety and that genuine sense of bewilderment that those misunderstood teenage years can throw at you. Garcia Bernal does a good job at making us root for him at the start but rather than hate him at the end, we kind of just shake our heads and say “what a weirdo.”
And that’s where it didn’t deliver for me. The murder of Paul is an obvious turning point but Elvis simply carries on being himself and never really changes gears that much. While he does hold some sort of control over Malerie, he never slips into “evil boyfriend” mode, which we have all become accustomed to with these types of movies. In a strange way, what I don’t like about it is what I do like about it. It’s frustrating at times but at least it doesn’t follow clichés. It’s clear that the writer and director behind the movie had their own clear vision and were adamant not to be burdened with Hollywood traditions. I applaud them for that but I still wish Elvis had answered some of the questions that filled my head immediately after the credits hit.
Was it a long and laborious plan all along? I won’t say anymore. Watch it for yourself and let me know your thoughts.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter