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Steven Soderbergh's first feature Sex, Lies and Videotape was a solid commercial and critical hit, but he had to wait nine years and make six more pictures before another major success came along. His 1993 release King of the Hill is a great movie now almost completely forgotten -- except by the few who saw it and love it. Criterion's revival will hopefully do for this picture what it did for Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil -- revive a movie unfairly ignored when it was new. To sweeten the deal, the new disc release contains an entire second feature as an unbilled extra -- the same director's suspense thriller The Underneath.
Soderbergh directed, edited and wrote the screenplay adapting A.E. Hotchner's autobiographical story of a young boy during the Great Depression. In a small Missouri town, young Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) impresses his teacher Miss Mathey (Karen Allen) with his imagination and writing skill. But Mathey guesses correctly that Aaron is going through a rough time at home. His salesman father (Jeroen Krabbé of Soldier of Orange) is out of work and his frail mother (Lisa Eichhorn of Cutter's Way) is suffering from a respiratory ailment. Aaron tries to keep up appearances with the well-to-do students at school, but things at home grow worse. His younger brother is sent to live with relatives and his mother leaves to enter a sanitarium. Then father must take off on a job selling watches, Aaron is left to fend for himself. When his money runs out, the boy has to dodge the management of their hotel. With the help of a light-fingered neighbor Lester (Adrien Brody) Aaron figures out several survival dodges, and he makes friends with the mysterious Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) and Mungo's 'interesting' female companion Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern). Aaron cleverly fools the school into thinking his home life is stable, and attends his graduation in a stolen suit. But thanks his invented stories, his classmates are getting close to figuring out his true situation. And when the hotel seeks to evict Aaron, he's been living for days on a plate of stale dinner rolls.
Less a coming of age story than a rude introduction to the hard knocks of life, King of the Hill is a brave boy's everyday adventure in creative subsistence. Aaron's wild imagination helps out in school but he's not quite old enough to realize that some adults can see through his fabrications. He also needs help to outsmart the brutish traffic cop, and the hotel's merciless attendant, who would like nothing better than to lock Aaron out of his room and impound the family's belongings. Aaron is shocked to see his father walking door to door, trying in vain to sell some miserable decorative candles. We can't tell how grave his mother's situation might be. His father is eventually completely out of touch, and we're not certain that he's ever going to come home. Aaron is forced to figure things out on his own, and although he's prepared in some ways he's completely inexperienced in others. He can't approach his teacher or the wealthy parents of his schoolmates for fear of being arrested as an abandoned child. A vacant lot downtown is filling up with homeless people. If the city doesn't care about them Aaron can hardly expect anybody to come to his aid.
Aaron is not unlike the boy embarking on a grand adventure in Alexander MacKendrick's Sammy Going South, except Aaron's adventures are on a smaller, morally ambiguous scale. Aaron has no difficulty in siding with the dispossessed people in the town square, and he also falls right in with the larcenous Lester, who has found a way to access the hotel's huge storeroom of confiscated goods and clothing. He's also intrigued by the strange girl down the hall, who seems desperate for company, and whose mother hovers close by, watching over her. By helping deliver some illicit booze, Aaron meets Mr. Mungo, who is living with a prostitute. Mungo acts as if money were no object, but he's succumbing to the same problems that are creeping up on Aaron.
Happily enough, King of the Hill is not a neo-noir story of adolescent doom and family destruction; viewers fearing the worst will appreciate the story's forgiving conclusion. Hotchner and Soderbergh have a generous attitude about people, and the only truly cruel characters are men with jobs that encourage their worst natures. Father is a good fellow trying to re-connect with a decent job. His foreign accent makes us think that he may be better educated than he looks, and that his sales jobs were taken out of desperation. Spalding Gray's glazed-over casual attitude and empty promises generate our sympathy. He treats Aaron like a fellow gentleman. Knowing actor Gray's eventual fate, his Mr. Mungo takes on deeper meaning. Lisa Eichhorn looks wasted and weak from the moment we see her, as if her health has already forced her to distance herself from her children. Yet Aaron and his little brother dote on her. Young Adrien Brody's engaging thief Lester is an outsider who has already had run-ins with the law. Karen Allen's schoolteacher is every young boy's dream. We want Aaron to ask her to hold her breath for ten years, so he can catch up to her age and marry her.
King of the Hill is an exciting emotional experience: its unusual story doesn't fit into any particular formula. And if Aaron is a liar and a thief, he's also a classic hero. His big aim is to get his family back together again, a driving theme usually associated with more fanciful stories like The Railway Children. The idea of a child striving to save his family against harsh social conditions surely wasn't a commercial winner in 1993, when kids in most movies were engaged in super-hero fantasies of one kind or another. Let's hope that artistic justice is served and that King of the Hill is rediscovered.
Criterion's Dual-Format Blu-ray + DVD of King of the Hill is a real beauty. The Universal release has a painterly look with pastel colors, sort of a Bonnie & Clyde period feel but a little prettier. Aaron's town is green and beautiful, as we see in an action scene where he and Lester prevent a pair of Repo Men from snagging his father's car. The 5.1 audio envelops us in a pleasant period atmosphere.
The disc contains new interviews with Steven Soderbergh and author A.E. Hotchner. An interesting visual essay by :: kogonada called Against Tyranny posits Aaron and Lester as outsiders struggling against the inequities of the Depression. A trailer is included as well. The insert booklet has an essay by Peter Tonguette and reprints of a Soderbergh interview and an excerpt from Hotchner's personal memoir.
Quite unexpected is a full HD encoding of Soderbergh's next feature, The Underneath. The interesting reworking of Robert Siodmak's 1948 noir classic Criss Cross follows the story fairly closely in some respects. Heavily stylized in Panavision and making use of colored filters in a way that prefigures Soderbergh's later work, the show plays well enough but comes off as somewhat schematic. Peter Gallagher is not a strong leading man and the worthy supporting cast doesn't quite compensate: William Fichtner, Joe Don Baker, Paul Dooley, Shelley Duvall, Elizabeth Shue, Anjanette Comer. We really like cameraman Elliot Davis's images for their own sake -- he also filmed Soderbergh's Gray's Anatomy and Out of Sight.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King of the Hill Blu-ray rates:
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