Directed by James Marsh. USA. 2005.

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Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal (Elvis Valderez), William Hurt (David Sandow), Laura Harding (Twyla Sandow), Pell James (Malerie Sandow), Paul Dano (Paul Sandow) 

The debut feature of James Marsh, the celebrated documentary filmmaker, tells the story of Elvis who after being honourably discharged by the US Navy seeks out his real father, David Sandow who is now a Pastor in Corpus Christi, Texas.  When rejected by Sandow, Elvis begins an illicit affair with his half-sister Malerie and when Paul, his half-brother, finds out it sets off a chain of events which lead to disaster for the family. 

The film takes its influences from the great American horror films where events that occur are outside of the realm of reality in a world different from our own though it sure looks familiar.  And those films like Psycho and Blue Velvet deal with issues of guilt, faith and violence all prevalent to the narrative in this film.  The script is written by Milo Addica who mixed capital punishment with inter-racial romance in Monster's Ball

Marsh maybe eager to talk about the influence of religion and the style he was aiming for; I got the feeling that this film was more against the fear of the outsider in American culture - having someone foreign enter your life and in this case disrupt the peacefulness of quiet American suburbia. American film has dealt with this before in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and the work of Larry Cohen, but with the new political climate in this post 9/11 world the film does attempt to welcome in 'Others' in to their world but the results are not always the expected ones of America.  The otherness of Elvis enters this Catholic world and with him brings social unrest and breaking of social taboos; sex with his (underage) half-sister whose progress at school naturally diminishes.  This in turn leads Paul to rebel against his father, the holy than though pastor, by singing a bitter rock and roll song at a Sunday service.  The song is about Jesus and more so Paul asking people to look at him for a change, what is bad is that the word of the Lord has been put to rock and roll. 

The irony is that America does have this fear for its safety on the domestic front, but Marsh does a clever thing cinematically - all the external scenes are shot from a distance as we watch the characters in a long shot, it may seem as if we are prying but we know these characters are safe.  Whereas the interior scenes are shot on hand-held camera up close on the people talking, you feel like you are too close for comfort and this creates an eerie atmosphere making the acts of violence that follow all the more shocking in their execution. 

The final act of asking for forgiveness for something that is fundamentally wrong lends the story its final debt to the biblical elements and criticising the Christian beliefs it portrays throughout the film.  Each character in the film at some point asks for forgiveness or says they are sorry for what they have done. 

The performances are good all round; Bernal broods effectively on screen in his first English speaking role; Hurt lends pathos to his undignified role and Ms. James as Malerie goes through a range of emotions and her reaction at realising she has been sleeping with a blood relative is not histrionic but perfectly melodramatic for the context.   

Although I feel Marsh may have overreached himself in his debut feature, he does score points for his bravery at choosing such a difficult screenplay although at the end it might well leave a certain sense of awkwardness in that due to our acceptance of cinematic violence nowadays, you may feel a sense of taking it for granted as the story washes over you.   

A contemporary American horror film, that is more horrific thematically than actually.

First seen at the London Film Festival, Oct-Nov 2005 

Jamie Garwood
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