King of the Hill: The Best Steven Soderbergh Movie You’ve Never SeenMovies Features Steven Soderbergh
In 1993, Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill was set 60 years in the past. Now, another 30 years gone, this adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s Great Depression-era memoir takes place nearly a century ago. Yet despite its period trappings, the movie doesn’t particularly feel like a time capsule (not least because it hasn’t been overexposed in the years since its release; it was underseen and barely available for some time). Maybe that’s because Aaron (Jesse Bradford), film’s 12-year-old hero, doesn’t exist in a world that appears fully ravaged by economic collapse. Some of his classmates at a sunny, well-kept St. Louis public school are downright wealthy, and he glimpses faded imitations of prosperity at his hopefully-temporary residence, a rundown hotel (which he must keep a secret from his school, lest they find out that he’s moved out of the district). His father (Jeroen Krabbé) gets just enough work to barely scrape by – in other words, just enough to look like a loser who can’t provide, rather than a victim of circumstance. Throughout the movie, those circumstances chip away at Aaron’s family; his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) decamps for a sanitarium to treat her tuberculosis, while his little brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) is sent to live with better-off relatives. Life in the margins of the U.S. doesn’t snuff Aaron out; instead, it pulls away a visible better life, slowly but surely, until it seems impossibly distant from his current means. Sound familiar?
Maybe arthouse audiences in 1993 were too optimistic for the movie’s dimensionalized bleakness, or maybe this just wasn’t what anyone wanted or expected from Soderbergh at the time. For much of the 1990s, it would have been easy enough to assume that he was casting about for a proper follow-up to his 1989 breakthrough Sex, Lies, and Videotape, somehow sophomore-slumping his way through the decade. In retrospect, it seems obvious that a lot of these projects paved the way for later triumphs. The experimental biography of Kafka gives way to the discipline of Che. The crime picture (and remake) The Underneath spawns the likes of Ocean’s 11, Out of Sight and No Sudden Move. The freakout/reset of Schizopolis evolves into the starrier wackiness of Full Frontal or Ocean’s 12. King of the Hill, though, is no kind of dry run; it stands alone as Soderbergh’s best pre-Out of Sight movie, and belongs among his best overall.
King of the Hill is structured as a series of vignettes, befitting its childhood-memoir roots, but Soderbergh assembles these scenes – some comic, some deeply sad, some harrowing, some all at once – to accumulate in power. He’s a master of turning character into story: Aaron, who at times resembles a scrappier, lower-class version of Beverly Cleary’s dimwitted middle-class striver Henry Huggins, wins at marbles, loses at breeding canaries for a local pet shop, impresses a couple of local girls (one rich, and one closer to his economic level) almost without trying, and fabricates biographical details about himself both for fun and survival. He encounters kindness from his teacher (played luminously by Karen Allen) and cruelty or indifference from many others. Later in the film, when his father goes out of town for a job and Aaron is left to his own devices with a balance due on the hotel room, his life starts to resemble one of those Looney Tunes shorts where a starving Sylvester the Cat desperately endeavors to open a single can of food. At one point, he cuts out magazine pictures of food and assembles them on a plate for a pretend paper meal, both funny and heartbreaking.
Soderbergh’s visual dexterity feels downright lush here, though not without its complicated tones. You can see the origins of his propensity for sickly yellow interiors, as the paint-rich warmth of his color palette (lots of orange-y reds and reddish browns) can turn oppressive as the walls around Aaron start to crack and peel, metaphorically speaking. In an interview included in the Criterion edition of the film, the director mentions the hotel in Barton Fink, though the Empire Hotel in King of the Hill has a more benign form of neglect than that eventual hellscape. Also like Fink, this is a low-key sweaty movie; no one much comments about oppressive heat, but everyone in Aaron’s family looks damp around the hairline. It also benefits from the director’s idiosyncratic eye for casting, featuring early appearances, often just a second or third role, from future Oscar-winner (and occasional buffoon) Adrien Brody, one-time rom-com queen Katherine Heigl, mid-period Buffy cast member Tara Benson, and acclaimed musician Lauryn Hill. Star Jesse Bradford, meanwhile, is probably best-known for his crooked smile as Kirsten Dunst’s love interest in Bring It On. In other words, an eclectic bunch: Not exactly Ocean’s-level all-stars, and all absolutely pitch perfect in this movie.
With King of the Hill, Soderbergh might have been tempted to go for the kind of ending where a small victory feels like an inspirational triumph. Instead, what should be a triumph for the family – the father gets a treasured WPA job, the mother’s health improves, Sullivan returns to the family thanks to Aaron’s machinations, and everyone moves to a more desirable apartment complex – has a bittersweet twinge. Aaron has more than glimpsed the difficulties that life can throw at him, and has no particular reason to trust that they’re over. His familial embrace in the movie’s final shot stays at a distance. Soderbergh has been since charged with maintaining that kind of distance in some of his later work, holding his subjects at a brainy remove. King of the Hill rebukes that notion: Still early in his career, Soderbergh was (and still is) capable of deep empathy. What he keeps at arm’s length is sentiment. King of the Hill is a lovely picture that nonetheless understands where sentiment alone gets you in a sometimes-lovable, often-pitiless America.
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.