Finding Graceland (review)
Touched by an Elvis
It’s easy to laugh at the religious reverence with which some people approach Elvis Presley, and it’s easy to laugh at the little myths that have grown up around the Elvis legend — how he healed a woman there, lent a helping hand to a man there. But he and they are really no less and no more silly than any other inspirational figure or guiding parables the desolate and confused turn to for succor. And Finding Graceland may be the first film to treat these kinds of delusions as the harmless — and even beneficial — fantasies that they are.
Byron Gruman (Johnathon Schaech) is wandering apparently aimlessly in the desert in his 1959 sky-blue Cadillac convertible, in beautiful condition except for the fact that the driver’s side door is missing and the left side of the car is scraped down to the metal. At a lonely gas station, he meets a hitchhiker who insists he’s Elvis Presley (Harvey Keitel: U-571, Fairy Tale: A True Story), and though Byron obviously wants to be alone in his misery, he agrees to drive Elvis part of the way to his destination: Graceland, just in time for the annual commemoration of his August 16 “death.”
Byron’s misery revolves around the recent death of his wife, Beatrice (Gretchen Mol: Cradle Will Rock, The Thirteenth Floor), in the car accident that ruined the Caddy, and Elvis — who says he “travel[s] around, lend[s] a hand to folks who need it”– tries to dig the story out of Byron. Byron insists he killed his wife, though we have our doubts — is it merely grief and survivor’s guilt speaking? — and before long he is thoroughly fed up with Elvis. But he can’t get rid of the guy, no matter how he tries, and so these two men head to Graceland together.
What could so easily have become a sappy, sticky story about the healing hand of Elvis helping a young man overcome his grief is saved by the tinges of fantasy around the edges — it’s much easier to not only accept but enjoy this kind of story of redemption when it gives us the out of not having to accept that it’s all entirely true. Director David Winkler (who cowrote the film with Jason Horwitch) creates a timeless, slightly otherworldly quality by keeping his characters away from other people — Byron could easily be in the Twilight Zone — and by dressing them in clothing that evokes the 50s (though the film is contemporary). The shiny silver Airstream trailer, pulled by an old green Ford, that passes Byron and Elvis on the road is like a phantom of the past.
And when they do finally run into other human beings, it’s at a casino — which seems to rise up out of the mirages of the desert — that features a revue of celebrity impersonators, including a “Marilyn Monroe,” Ashley (Bridget Fonda: Monkeybone, Lake Placid). Populating an afterlife of dead celebs, the impersonators are reminders that no one is what they seem, that we all put on fronts that help us deal with the world.
And that might even apply to Elvis. Is he the real deal? He seems as wounded, in his own way, as Byron is, and as much in need of the sustenance that he has been offering to those around him. Or is he?
Finding Graceland is a lovely little film, genuinely honest and surprisingly touching. It’s enough to make you wish that the image and ideal of Elvis — the one that never really existed — were actually real.