Soderbergh’s first studio effort is rich in its ‘30s Depression-era period detail, while also functioning as a coming-of-age tale with an unexpected touch of warmth.
Cast: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn
Plot: A young boy struggles on his own in a run-down motel after his parents and younger brother are separated from him in 1930s Depression-era Midwest.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Coming-of-Age; Great Depression
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 23 Oct 2016
In retrospect, Steven Soderbergh’s third feature—and first studio movie—King of the Hill feels like an anomaly in his superb body of work.
Known to be a sharp, incisive filmmaker with style and wit, Soderbergh has been versatile enough as a filmmaker to traverse different genres and methods of storytelling.
But right after his eye-widening Cannes Palme d’Or-winning feature debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), based on his own original screenplay, and the elusive Kafka (1991), which he directed from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh refused to be pigeonholed by adapting A.E. Hotchner’s (who, at the time of this writing, is still alive at 99) memoirs, which chronicled living through the Great Depression in the ‘30s.
It is with this context that King of the Hill feels strangely free—now as it was then in 1993—from any markers that try to classify it as a ‘Soderbergh’ picture. Perhaps this is why not many have heard or seen it.
Jesse Bradford plays Aaron, the boy at the heart of Hotchner’s memoirs, who has to take up a series of adult responsibilities when his family are circumstantially separated from each other.
“When Aaron here works for his meal the way I did, he can have some.”
His brother is offloaded to an uncle in another town so that they could “save a dollar each day”, while his mother has to stay in a sanatorium; his father eventually needs to make ends meet, and his new job of selling watches at other towns means that Aaron is left alone in a rented room at a time of great poverty and hopelessness.
Soderbergh fashions a coming-of-age tale with an unexpected touch of warmth, which has rarely been felt in the director’s subsequent films.
A unique use of camerawork and sound to capture the interiority of Aaron’s psychology is intriguing—particularly in the third act when he is faced with sheer isolation and hunger, a technique Soderbergh would later polish and manipulate.
King of the Hill is also rich in its period detail, and in the restoration by the Criterion Collection, we see crisp images with strong, earthly colours. Despite its assortment of interesting supporting characters and Soderbergh’s visual panache, the film unfortunately still feels neglected today.
I like to see it as a companion piece to the Coens’ more darkly-comic Barton Fink (1991), set roughly in a similar period albeit a little later in the early ‘40s, focusing on a writer in a hotel who is ‘starved’ of ideas and living his ‘Great Depression’.