A ragtag group of travelers, one of whom is a violent man prone to aggressive outbursts, rides in a ramshackle transport on a journey through dark terrain. Mostly they sleep peacefully, until an error in their navigation equipment becomes apparent and their vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Now stranded in a hostile desert and seeking shelter in an abandoned outpost, they await either help or a slow death. As the sun sets, flesh-eating aliens emerge from beneath the soil...
Savvy readers of course recognize this as the plot of Pitch Black, the sci-fi actioner that was a moderate success in theaters last year and subsequently a cult hit on video. But merely excise that last part about the aliens, and you also have the plot of The King Is Alive, the fourth Dogme 95 film from Dogme cofounder Kristian Levring. Each of the other Dogmetists -- Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, and Søren Kragh Jacobsen -- has directed one apiece of the first three such films. (Incidentally this is not necessarily the order in which they have ended up on these shores: Harmony Korine's 1999 julien donkey-boy, for instance, is considered "Dogme #6.")
To quickly recap what a Dogme film is, for the benefit of those not quite pretentious enough to be able to recite the tenets on demand, it's a film that follows ten rules -- some of which are deliberately stupider than others and designed as a whole to ensure that virtually no film can truly follow them all to the letter. The goal of the rules is to enforce a stripped-down aesthetic designed to be true to the actors' performances above all and keep "make-believe" elements to a minimum. Props, lights, costumes, and sets that aren't found on location are prohibited, and virtually anything that needs to be done on a sound stage or in postproduction (except editing) is forbidden. As a result Dogme films have tended to be visually uninteresting, though Levring bucks this trend by shooting at an abandoned village in the middle of the Namib Desert. Of course the Dogme rule that all filming must be done with hand-held cameras while the final product must be shown on 35 mm film leads, as usual, to a crappy blowup transfer from grainy digital video.
Right off the bat, The King Is Alive violates one of the major Dogme tenets, the one that forbids "temporal dislocation" and insists that the story be set in the here and now: The King is narrated in flashback by an African hermit named Kunana (Peter Kubheka), the only native resident of the desert in which our not-so-stalwart tourists find themselves after their bus driver (Vusi Kuhene) follows the lead of a broken compass into the middle of nowhere without bothering to fill up on gas first.
An Australian survivalist named Jack (Miles Anderson) steps up to take charge of the group, outlining the rules necessary for survival: Get water, find food reserves, locate shelter, remain visible, and keep your spirits up. He's also the only one able to communicate with Kunana and thus discovers a stockpile of tinned carrots in the abandoned village that the tribesman calls home. That Jack never bothers to ask Kunana where he gets the carrots is just a leap of logic you'll have to make. Anyhow, after showing his fellow passengers how to obtain water by condensing morning dew, Jack walks into the desert to get help, never to return.
Everyone's first reaction, of course, is to party. Any alcohol to be found in the luggage is quickly imbibed, as our cast gets set to make the best of things. Only the self-serious intellectual Henry (David Bradley) wants no part of the festivities, instead offering up would-be profundities such as, "Is man no more than this?" Man (and woman) eventually proves that indeed he (and she) is not, as the circumstances start to bring out the worst in each. Particularly egregious in behavior is the English yob Paul, a racist rugby player constantly being belittled by his condescending father, Charles (David Calder), who passes the time practicing his golf swing and bragging about how well he manages to stay in shape.
Along with the inevitable violence comes some just as predictable sex, the arrangements of which lead to even more violence. Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is clearly the prize to be had, especially when she lovingly sprinkles sand on her naked breasts. Stereotypically rude French smoker Catherine (Romane Bohringer), on the other hand, views herself as the most desired objet d'amour but backs away from any and all advances. Meanwhile Kunana comments on the action with fascinating observations. ("They said words" is typical.) He personifies one of the running themes in Dogme films, that of the simple or retarded person who is clearly superior to the rest of us due to being somehow more in touch with life. Unable to understand English, Kunana simply sees a bunch of people making lots of noise and doing nothing relevant. The danger is that the audience may also take this view.
Eventually Henry takes matters into his own hands by writing down parts of King Lear from memory and directing his fellow strandees in a mini production. This plot device feels more like a strained attempt at allegory than anything else, but it provides a framework from which other character conflicts evolve. Unhappily married Liz (Janet McTeer), for instance, uses her role in the play to flirt with the bus driver in hopes of aggravating her husband, Ray (Bruce Davison), who ultimately walks into the desert out of frustration. And Charles uses the play as a bargaining chip to exact a hideous quid pro quo that ends up causing a grossly manipulative and gratuitously excessive climax that's perhaps most offensive in its utter unoriginality.
One point that will interest cinephiles is that this film marks the final performance of the late Brion James. For those familiar with his work as a heavy in such films as Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, his performance here is a shock: He appears to have aged 20 years since his previous on-screen appearance and looks to be on the verge of death throughout (a harbinger of his passing very soon after shooting wrapped). James's presence adds a nice, honest poignancy to the forced emotions going on around him. Director Levring certainly knows how to manipulate an audience's feelings in the short term, and he'll probably impress some with his film. But the more one thinks about it, the less truthful The King Is Alive appears.
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