Sometimes, a title that looks pretty simple can, on closer inspection, turn out to be pretty complex, because it lends itself to more than one possible meaning. Does The New World refer to John Smith's discovery of America, or to Pocahontas' discovery of Europe? Does L'Enfant refer to the baby that is sold on the black market, or to the immature guy who put him there? Such titles work because each layer of interpretation has a strong basis in the movie itself. Sometimes, however, a title that may have more than one meaning doesn't work on any of its possible levels. And such, it seems, is the case with The King.
The title may be a reference to Elvis Presley, since the story concerns a recently discharged naval officer named Elvis Valderez (Gael García Bernal)—but the film rarely, if ever, actually mentions the musician. Or it may be a reference to Jesus, since Elvis goes looking for the father he never knew as soon as he leaves the Navy, and he quickly discovers that his father, David Sandlow (William Hurt), is now a born-again Christian and a successful pastor with a family—but again, the film doesn't make much, if any, use of "kingdom" language, nor does it focus on Christ as "king of kings" or anything like that.
Or it may be a reference to how Elvis sees his father, or even himself. Elvis is the son of a prostitute that David once knew, long before David became a Christian, and David, embarrassed that his sinful past has come back to haunt him, turns Elvis away at first. So Elvis, who begins his post-Navy life with a run-down car and a dingy motel room, sets out to worm his way into the family's comfortable middle-class life. Perhaps he sees himself as one who ascends a throne, conquers a dynasty, or proves himself superior to others.
At any rate, the cryptic ambiguity of the film's title is a clue to the cryptic ambiguity of the movie as a whole. Some critics see in it a smug attack on Bible-belt Christianity; others have praised the actors for creating complex characters who tug at our sympathies even as they act in alarming or repugnant ways. And through it all, there is Elvis, a figure who has no buddy, no sidekick, and thus no one to whom he can explain himself for our benefit. Instead, we watch as he manipulates individual members of David's family, never sure if he is doing so according to any sort of plan, or if one darn thing just leads to another.
David and certain members of his family do, at times, seem like evangelical stereotypes, quick to judge others and so keen to act on their own religious agenda that they don't quite function like regular members of society. When Elvis shows up outside the house, David tells his family to avoid that man, though he does not tell anyone how he knows him—except his wife, who retreats to the bathroom, angrily. When a car salesman asks David for a credit card, David first slips him a card with the word "JESUS" printed on it in huge letters. David's son Paul (Paul Dano) is a marginalized high-school senior who leads the worship band and actively campaigns to have Intelligent Design taught in school—and when he is offered a beer, he does not graciously decline the offer, but instead says, "I don't drink."