Steven Soderbergh’s third film, King of the Hill (1993), which followed his tremendously successful debut sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and his near-career imploding Kafka (1991), is a film unlike any other in his filmography. For those critics who chastise the filmmaker for being cold, clinical, cerebral, and distant, King of the Hill (not related to the Mike Judge series) will come across as a huge thematic and aesthetic shock. Filmed in the palate of a Norman Rockwell painting by cinematographer Elliot Davis, the film – an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s memoir – tells the story of Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), a young, on-the-verge-of-impoverished boy growing up in St. Louis in the midst of the Great Depression.
The film first introduces Aaron in a classroom, as he reads aloud a short story that he has written about a (fictional) encounter with Charles Lindbergh. While he may not be a child of wealth and means, he is a child of imagination and brains. His family lives in the Empire Hotel, in between apartments as his former salesman father (Jeroen Krabbé) hopes to find a job with the Works Progress Administration. Slowly, Aaron’s family is taken away from him. His brother is sent off to live with other family members because of economic hardship, while his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) develops consumption and is sent to a sanitarium to ride it out. Finally, his father is offered an interim position as a watch salesman, leaving Aaron alone to hold down the fort.
The plot, adapted from Hocthner’s book by Soderbergh, has a largely episodic structure. Each episode further illustrates Aaron’s imagination and his means of self-preservation. At the urging of a rich classmate, he attempts to breed songbirds. When this doesn’t work out, he starts caddying with the local hood rat, Lester (Adrien Brody). When he isn’t trying to survive, Aaron works on refining his cigar band collection with the help of the formerly wealthy Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), plays marbles, and chews gum with the hotel’s elevator girl (Lauryn Hill…yes, that Lauryn Hill). As Aaron, young Jesse Bradford shows remarkable range and carries the film primarily on his own. The supporting actors and actresses are all incredibly solid in their small roles, adding nuance and definition to Soderbergh’s St. Louis.
If I had one minor critique, it would be that the film’s depiction of the Great Depression is a bit too absolute. The boundary between rich and poor is almost solely defined by antagonism. Aaron’s classmates, including a beautiful rich girl (Katherine Heigl), all seem to view him as a circus attraction. They are kind to the point of patronizing or mean to the point of ridicule. Moreover, with the exception of Aaron’s school teacher, nearly every authority figure in the film – from a local beat cop to the hotel porter – relish in taking the lower class down another ring on the social ladder. The cop joyously tortures poor children by pinching their ears and breaks up a squatters camp, while the porter’s sole duty is to change the locks on the down-on-their-luck patrons, beating those who stand in his way. All the while, Elliot Davis gives us a St. Louis rendered in golden hues.
Ultimately, this is one of Soderbergh’s best films, one that has finally been released on DVD/Blu-Ray in the United States. I’ve been looking forward to this release for a decade now and the Criterion Collection release does not disappoint. The 3-disc, dual-format (DVD/Blu-Ray), set features a pair of interviews with Soderbergh and author A.E. Hotchner (they clock in at about twenty minutes each), a brief visual essay by ::kogonada, some deleted scenes and – most significantly – the presentation of Soderbergh’s follow up noir The Underneath (1995, which also features an interview with the director).
Once a prolific commentary participant, the director has shrugged off commentary tracks of his own films unless accompanied by another participant. Thus, the brief interviews stand in for them and – like his commentaries – reveal a director who is cold and clinical when it comes to his past work. He comments that King of the Hill is often the movie that fans describe as being far more admirable than he sees it (he regrets making such a beautiful looking film) whereas he blasts The Underneath (a film he once told me was “wrong” to defend) very colorfully: “I think it’s a beautiful film to look at and I think the score is really beautiful but 15 seconds in I know we’re in trouble because of how fucking long it takes to get through those credits!” Later, he notes that the rough cut was falling apart – due to poor splices – in the editing room and that it served as a symbol of the film itself. While I greatly miss Soderbergh’s commentaries, the interviews and the visual essay by ::kogonada fill most of the void. The latter is a top notch tribute that not only analyzes the filmmaker’s use of non-linear editing in King of the Hill, but places Soderbergh’s fascination with temporal deconstruction into his larger filmography. This is a great set – and one that will no doubt make my list of the top titles of 2014.