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Rebellious young lovers is practically a genre all its own, finding its roots in 50s drive-in fodder and arguably reaching its apex decades later with Oliver Stone‘s Natural Born Killers, a film that has forever influenced every iteration since. With Shangri-La Suite, also known as Kill the King, the familiar yarn is spun again in another twisted journey that follows in the like, its narrative saturated in tones of 70s sepia film stock and dark comedy that works as hard as it can to be a the darkly-sung fable it demands.
From opposite sides of the tracks, Jack (Luke Grimes) and Karen (Emily Browning) meet in rehab, under the care of a doctor (Alan Tudyk) who prefers electric shock therapy for Jack and a more ‘hands-on’ approach for Karen. Despite being told to stay clear of each other, the two bond and he reveals a calling, one learned on a drug-bender where his ghost mother tells him through a backward-spinning record to take out Elvis Presley, leading them on a cross-country murder spree.
Directed by Eddie O’Keefe, Shangri-La Suite is a hazy, psychedelic bear trap of a movie that ends up less like a snare than a seduction the longer you stick with it. Narrated throughout with pitch-perfect deference to the throwback spirit of it all by none other than Burt Reynolds, the film is homespun madness that almost against everything that seems logical, kind of works. Surely there is little about Jack and Karen that could be considered authentic, and O’Keefe is careful to keep their story angular, with plenty of cosmetic flare that give it lots of style, from its low-budgety feel and spotlight lighting choices to its spot-on classic and alternative era soundtrack that layers nearly every moment of the film.
While Jack and Karen are almost caricatures, Elvis is not. Embodied by Ron Livingston, the singer is played straight in a performance that isn’t an impersonation but rather a reimagining of the iconic entertainer, never playing into the tropes that have made Presley a parody in the decades since his death. In the days and hours before his legendary comeback show in 1974, Livingston keeps Elvis vulnerable, toning down expectations, delivering a genuinely impactful turn.
Browning is also very good, an actress who has made a career out of taking chances and does so again here, giving Karen the proper girl-caught-in-the-web feel yet tinged with convincing ache. She is impossible not to watch. Grimes has some good moments, but is, of the three, the least effective, not quite as burdened as the character needs to be.
Shangri-La Suite is not going to be for everyone, and finding an audience is going to be a tough sell, but the remarkable thing about it is how well it grabs and holds once you let it in. Buoyed by its phenomenal music and some great performances, the film’s aggressive creative style will be the decider, one that will likely divide most. If you’re looking for something well off the beaten path, Shangri-La Suite is an inspired, trippy fairy tale.
Movie description: Shangri-La Suite is a 2016 crime thriller about a young murderous couple who escape a rehab facility on a quest to kill the King of Rock and Roll.
Director(s): Eddie O'Keefe
Actor(s): Emily Browning, Luke Grimes, Burt Reynolds