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 is sadly unavailable on DVD or Blu-Ray in the United States. He has allegedly been working on getting it and Kafka on home video for years (even going so far as to recut the latter). I hadn’t seem the film in ten years and found it on Netflix Watch Instantly this past week. I urge you to watch this under appreciated gem before it disappears again.