If you only know Richard E. Bates Jr. from his debut, Excision (one of my favourite modern horrors), or even from any of his subsequent, lesser-known projects like Suburban Gothic, Tone-Deaf, or Trash Fire, you might think he’s only capable of violent, sarcastic nihilism. Don’t get me wrong, if you can vibe with it I think they’re very effective, and that sort of tone works well with Bates Jr’s style of sardonic writing, but after a while you start to feel that all that cynicism can be a little one-note. With his latest feature King Knight, though, Bates Jr. shows a real growth and breadth as a filmmaker, and an exploration of something new and unfamiliar to him – kindness and joy. While all of his other projects feature, in some way, a journey of reflection and self-actualization, King Knight may be the first to really achieve it.
Matthew Gray Gubler, a mainstay of Bates Jr’s projects, plays Thorn, the leader of a Los Angeles-based coven of witches who seem tight-knit and fiercely loyal to each other. They have hilariously organized and meticulous gatherings, ceremonies, and rituals that, in more than one way, feel like neighborhood watch meetings. The colourful commune is introduced with a series of interviews under the guise of couples counselling sessions administered by Thorn and his partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan). Desmond (Johnny Pemberton) and Neptune (Josh Fadem) struggle with the insecurity that one of them may be more committed to the relationship than the other and may be questioning his sexuality. Rowena (Kate Comer) and Percival (Andy Milonakis) are expecting a child, and wonder how they’ll fare as parents. Echo (Emily Chang) and Angus (Nelson Franklin) obsessively tone-police the rest of the group as a cover for their own insecurities and relationship strife. Thorn, himself, battles a tumultuous relationship with his straight-laced, estranged mother (Barbara Crampton) and a series of mysterious invitations from his past.
As with many vanilla community meetings, though, the coven also has some hidden infighting and political gamesmanship lying beneath their cordial exterior. When it’s revealed – to the hilariously overdramatic reaction of both Willow and the rest of the coven – that Thorn was *gasp* a popular jock in high school and not, in fact, a social outcast like the rest, he is voted out as leader and sent into exile. Chugging a bowl of ayahuasca and embarking on a walkabout across the country to his high school reunion, Thorn battles overzealous security guards and no small number of mischievous critters in a quest to find his true self. Ultimately, he arrives in his former hometown and has to confront both his mother and the entirety of the high school over which he once presided, and a hilarious reckoning (complete with an elaborate song and dance routine) is coming.
Bates Jr., if he’s known for anything, is a master of witty dialogue, snide asides, and clever wordplay in his scripts and both his screenplay for King Knight and his entire cast are more than up to the task here. Each scene is densely packed with little jokes and slyly biting commentary that, while it may seem like a sendup of trendy Wicca lifestyles, also takes aim at vanilla society, especially in the second half of King Knight where the two sides intersect. Again, though, the cynicism of Bates Jr’s projects is barely a whisper here and, especially compared to the pitch-blackness of Excision, King Knight is downright wholesome. It’s a refreshing departure from the director’s prior work, but also manages to keep Bates Jr’s signature quirkiness intact. There may be audiences for whom this quirkiness is eye-rolling, but I think if you’re already on board with Bates Jr’s style, there is so much to love in King Knight. For the first time in Bates Jr’s career, King Knight takes the heart that has always been behind his projects and proudly wears it on it’s sleeve.