Home Video Hovel: King of the Hill, by David Bax
I grew up in a handful of places in and around the city of St. Louis. Being awful proud of where I’m from, I tend to perk up at any movie that takes place in my hometown. Steven Soderbergh’s 1993 film King of the Hill, just out from Criterion, is one such movie. Despite taking place well before even my parents were born, it captures a magnificent sense of the place (it probably helps that the film was shot in the area). Of particular verisimilitude is the oppressive humidity; most of the people in the film are draped in a thin sheet of sweat, no matter their level of physical exertion. Beyond the geographical specificity, though Soderbergh captures a particular moment of childhood, the last months of pre-adolescence when the world can still be a playground but the growing sense that it’s much more than that is both daunting and exciting.
Jesse Bradford stars as Aaron, a young boy living in a cheap hotel with his parents. Except that his sick mother is sent to a sanitarium and his father is often gone on long business trips. Plot is not of paramount importance here. This is mostly a slice of this boy’s life, the world he inhabits as he sees it and the people who shape him.
King of the Hill belongs to the less than subtle side of Soderbergh’s filmography. He shows you the world in extreme close-ups and Dutch angles. Most of Aaron’s life is spent in places that are hot and dirty, yellow and brown. But when we see the golf course where the well-to-do play, it’s bright and verdant, almost neon.
The cast is fantastic. Not in the star-studded way of Ocean’s Eleven but in the surfeit of warm and welcome character actors. Karen Allen, as Aaron’s teacher, has never failed to improve a film by appearing in it and this is no exception. Spalding Gray, one of Soderbergh’s heroes, plays a gregarious but creepy hotel denizen. And a pre-fame Adrien Brody is a sharp and slick, potentially bad influence.
The film takes place during the Great Depression and bears the same trademarks as some more recent films that have come along in our recession (or, hopefully, in the wake of it). Like every third movie last year, King of the Hill, takes a look at what it takes to get ahead in America when you’ve started out in the lower caste. Aaron likes to make up stories – fitting as the movie is based on the childhood of writer A.E. Hochtner. Talent and artistic pursuit is only one possible path out of the gutter and it’s open to very few. More achievable a lifestyle is that of crime. We never see Aaron rob a bank or anything like that but there is a motif of theft. Early on, we see a young boy caught for stealing an apple, which is then blatantly stolen by a police officer. Later, Aaron contemplates stealing to eat as well and an apple is among his possible loot.
As much as I love seeing a movie set in my hometown, large parts of King of the Hill are, thankfully, not immediately relatable to me. But having seen the film has brought me a bit closer to understanding the plight of poor kids and their limited options.
Special features include interviews with Soderbergh and Hochtner, a video essay, Soderbergh’s follow-up feature, The Underneath (!), and more.