King of the Hill: Criterion Collection
March 27, 2014
After the surprise success of his independent film debut, sex, lies & videotape (1989), which won the prestigious Palme d’Or, Steven Soderbergh struggled to find the right projects and the ability to make them to his satisfaction. This resulted in a series of uneven efforts that included Kafka (1991) and The Underneath (1995). Arguably the best from this period of his career is King of the Hill (1993), an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s coming-of-age novel set in Great Depression-era St. Louis. Soderbergh’s film got some good notices, but failed to connect with mainstream audiences.
Aaron (Bradford) is a kid who lives a pretty idyllic existence going to school and watching out for his little brother Sullivan. This all changes when his parents (Krabbe and Eicchorn) decide to send Sullivan off to family members in another city in order to save money. An understandably upset Aaron is determined to make enough money to bring his brother back. He does all sorts of odd jobs, from running errands for the bellhop in the hotel where his family lives to caddying with his friend Lester (Brody). In his spare time, Aaron raises baby canaries, plays marbles and hangs out with one of his neighbors – a girl his age (played by a young Amber Benson) who teaches him how to slow dance.
Soderbergh gets a fantastic, sensitive performance out of Jesse Bradford whom we see most of the world through his eyes. Aaron is an earnest innocent and Bradford conveys this in a way that doesn’t have the usual affectations that plagues most childhood actors. Aaron manages to stay optimistic despite the various hardships he endures.
Bradford is ably supported by a superb cast that includes the likes of 1980s mainstays like Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Lisa Eicchorn (Cutter’s Way) and youngsters like Amber Benson and Katherine Heigl in early roles. A young Adrien Brody is the real stand-out as Aaron’s friend and he brings a good-natured, cocky charm to the role.
The attention to period detail is fantastic, from the clothes people wear to the cars they drive. This helps transport us instantly to this time and place. The warm color scheme Soderbergh employs throughout is reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s famous paintings. The director juxtaposes the warm, inviting look of King of the Hill with the hardships that Aaron deals with in a way that manages to avoid sappy sentimentality. The harshness of the Great Depression is seen through the eyes of a child. While this film may lack the polish of Soderbergh’s later output, there is an earnest vibe that echoes its protagonist as you get the feeling that the director is still trying to figure things out, much like his cinematic alter ego.
Personally, supervised by Soderbergh, the transfer for King of the Hill looks fantastic with excellent detail and the warm color palette faithfully preserved.
There is an interview with director Steven Soderbergh who looks back at King of the Hill. He feels that the film looks too beautiful and should have had a rougher edge to it, if he was making today. He talks about the book, what drew him to it and how he went about adapting it. Soderbergh speaks highly of Jesse Bradford and why he cast him as Aaron. As always, the director is honest about his own shortcomings and that of the film.
Also included is an interview with author A.E. Hotchner who wrote the book on which the film is based on. It was a fictionalized account of his experiences growing up during the Great Depression. He talks about writing the book and his life, in particular, his parents.
“Against Tyranny” is a visual essay about Soderbergh’s career in terms of narrative. In particular, it analyzes a dream sequence in King of the Hill. This featurette also juxtaposes the linear style of the rest of the film with this rather abstract sequence.
There are six deleted scenes and alternate takes.
Also included is a trailer.
Finally, a treat for Soderbergh fans is the inclusion of The Underneath, a neo-noir that stars Peter Gallagher and Alison Elliott. The director is interviewed and candidly talks about what a disappointing experience it was for him. He deems the film a failure, but it inspired him to re-evaluate his entire career. He talks about what drew him to the film. As always, Soderbergh is an eloquent speaker and talks knowledgably about filmmaking. A trailer for the film is also included.