King of the Hill

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh (based on the book by A.E. Hotchner)
Stars: Jesse Bradford (Aaron), Jeroen Krabbé (Mr. Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan), Adrien Brody (Lester), Joe Chrest (Ben), John McConnell (Patrolman Burns), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. McShane), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Peggy Freisen (Mrs. Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1993
Country: U.S.
King of the Hill Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo
King of the HillKing of the Hill was Steven Soderbergh’s third film in four years, following his Palme d’Or-winning directorial debut sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and his financially and critically disappointing Kafka (1991), and it confirmed what would become Soderbergh’s defining trait as a filmmaker: his artistic elasticity. A chameleon behind the camera who confidently shifts tones, styles, and genres and is just at home remaking older films and recreating older styles as he is experimenting with video and unorthodox production methods, Soderbergh has refused to be boxed in by audience expectations or auteurist descriptors, and for that reason alone he is one of the most interesting filmmakers of the past few decades.

Although not as highly regarded or remembered as his other films, King of the Hill is nonetheless one of Soderbergh’s best: a painterly, thoughtful, and subtly emotional portrait of preadolescent coming of age in dire circumstances. Beautifully adapted by Soderbergh himself from novelist and playwright A.E. Hotchner’s 1972 memoir about growing up poor and often alone in the slums of St. Louis during the Depression, the film centers on Aaron (Jesse Bradford), a resourceful eighth grader who navigates the difficulties of life with a vivid imagination and a fabulist’s sensibility. He lives in the dreary, run-down Empire Hotel with his father (Jeroen Krabbé), a infrequently employed salesman who is constantly waiting for a job with a watch company; his mother (Lisa Eichhorn), who suffers from tuberculosis; and his rabble-rousing little brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd).

Over the course of the film, Aaron’s family is slowly stripped away from him. First Sullivan is sent to live with an uncle out of town so that the family can save a dollar a week, then his mother goes to live in a sanitarium, and finally his father gets the coveted watch company position, which immediately sends him out on the road. Thus, for the latter half of the film, Aaron finds himself living completely alone and isolated, subsisting on a steady diet of cheap dinner roles while constantly dodging the owners of the hotel lest they lock him out of his room for nonpayment of the rent. Aaron’s isolation is palpable, and the emotional intensity it generates is one of the film’s most powerful currents.

Through Bradford’s sensitive, thoughtful performance and Soderbergh’s perceptive direction, we feel Aaron’s intense aloneness, which is often never so acute as when he is surrounded by others who can’t (or won’t) understand him. This is particularly true of his schoolmates, most of whom come from wealthy (or at least solidly middle-class) families and are unaware of the poverty in which Aaron lives. Although he befriends some of them and is pursued by the prettiest girl in class (played by a young Katherine Heigl), Aaron’s difference from them is bound to get in the way, which it does at a graduation party in which his extraordinary tall tales and ill-fitting clothing finally give him away. The pain of his embarrassment is heart-breaking.

True to the memoir, Soderbergh populates Aaron’s world with a curious collection of secondary characters who move in and out of his life. He is aided at various points by Lester (Adrien Brody), a cunning young resident of the hotel who also has a sick mother, and Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), a dapper older man who lives across the hall and presents himself as if he is still in possession of the wealth he has clearly lost. On the other end of the spectrum, he is impeded constantly by both a portly patrolman (John McConnell) who takes special, sadistic delight in tormenting the neighborhood children, and Ben (Joseph Chrest), the hotel’s grungy, match-chomping bellhop whose greatest delight is locking people out of their rooms and confiscating their belongings. At school, his teacher, Miss Mathey (Karen Allen), protects him by accepting his lies about where he lives at face value even though she knows otherwise. She clearly recognizes that he is a smart, inventive kid with a potentially bright future and that he doesn’t have anyone else looking out for him.

Working with cinematographer Elliot Davis (the first of their four collaborations in the 1990s), Soderbergh made King of the Hill one of his most visually rich films. Shot on a relatively low budget, the film nevertheless has a warm, painterly palette, inspired largely by the works of Edward Hopper (the color scheme is heavy on burnished amber tones and heavy maroons; there is rarely a primary color to be seen, except when a shocking pool of blood begins seeping from underneath a doorway). Especially given his first two films, which were emotionally chilly and fundamentally downbeat, it was surprising to both critics and audiences that Soderbergh would make a film of such emotional and visual warmth. This is not to say that the film skirts the ugly realities of true poverty and emotional devastation, but rather that the narrative’s harder edges are balanced with a sense of humanity that leaves us with a sense of hope and admiration, the lasting idea being that Aaron, despite the hardships he suffers, will endure and perhaps even blossom.

King of the Hill Criterion Collection Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Video interview with director Steven Soderbergh
  • Video interview with author A.E. Hotchner
  • “Against Tyranny,” a new video essay by :: kogonada
  • The Underneath (1995), Soderbergh’s follow-up feature with an interview with the director
  • Trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh, and an excerpt from Hotchner’s 1972 memoir
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 25, 2014

    Criterion’s 2K high-definition transfer of King of the Hill was made from the 4-perforation Super 35mm interpositive under the supervision of director Steven Soderbergh, while the soundtrack was transferred from the original 24-bit masters under the supervision of supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer Larry Blake. Both image and sound are fantastic, with the film’s visual presentation maintaining the painterly beauty of the cinematography with rich hues and excellent detail. Film grain is nicely maintained and contributes to the image’s overall appeal (interestingly, there is no mention in the liner notes of any kind of digital restoration, although the pristine quality of the image suggests that some clean-up was done, especially given that the film is two decades old). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack is clean and solid in creating an effectively immersive environment.

    Criterion’s Blu-ray of King of the Hill is actually a double feature, as Soderbergh’s follow-up feature, The Underneath (1995), is also included as a bonus. Although there is no audio commentary on either film, Criterion has shot two new video interviews with Soderbergh about each one. Soderbergh is always an interesting interview subject, and his views on the films are both lucid and enlightening. He is surprisingly candid about King and what he feels are its shortcomings, one of the primary being that he thinks it looks too good. Criterion has also shot a new 21-minute video interview with author A.E. Hotchner, on whose memoir the film is based. At a sprightly 93 years of age, Hotchner is a delight to watch as he recounts his life and experiences, including those used as the basis for the film. Also included on the disc is “Against Tyranny,” a intriguing 11-minute video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada, who discusses the more unorthodox elements of Soderbergh’s style. Finally, the disc includes several trailers and an insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh, and an excerpt from Hotchner’s 1972 memoir.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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