Judge Clark Douglas sees life through a sepia-toned filter.
Our review of King Of The Hill, published February 5th, 2009, is also available.
Among the versatile Soderbergh's most touching and surprising films.
Mrs. Kurlander: "Must you wear that filthy thing on your head?"
Facts of the Case
Our story begins in Depression-era St. Louis. Aaron (Jesse Bradford, Flags of Our Fathers) is a kid who comes from a very poor family, but he's nonetheless managed to con his way into a high-quality school. He's the star of his class, but lately the rest of his world is crumbling around him. His younger brother has been sent off to live with another family, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn, The Talented Mr. Ripley) has been committed to a sanatorium due to a tuberculosis diagnosis and his father (Jeroen Krabbe, The Prince of Tides) is frequently gone on long business trips. As such, poor Aaron is left to fend for himself within the confines of a fading hotel.
Steven Soderbergh's career has long followed a rather unpredictable arc. You could tell me that his next movie would be an action-packed thriller, or a goofy comedy, or a low-budget indie drama, or a Bollywood musical and I would probably believe you. The man has tried his hand at just about everything over the years, and he's been rather good at quite a lot of it. However, he's occasionally been accused of being too impersonal, of making films that feel more like technical exercises than stories with feeling. That's an accusation that certainly can't be leveled at King of the Hill, the heartfelt slice-of-life/coming-of-age drama based on A.E. Hotchner's memoir of the same name. It's one of the director's loveliest films, filled with bracing reality but also a great deal of affection for its characters.
One of the biggest problems I have with many period dramas is that so many of them seem like living museum installments. The actors are too aware that they're recreating a bygone era, the direction is too sentimental and the music swells a little too often. Soderbergh does indeed employ the familiar tactic of draping the film in nostalgic sepia-toned cinematography (an approach that often adds to the feeling that we're watching something trapped in amber), but elsewhere captures loads of convincing period detail. One of the things I love most about the film is that nearly every single character has at least a small amount of sweat on their face every time we see them. It's hot outside, air conditioning hadn't really become the norm yet—of course everyone's going to perspiring all the time. It's that kind of obvious yet brilliant touch that reminds us of why Soderbergh is such an underrated director.
Young Jesse Bradford handles the central role quite well, essaying a character who feels very much like the sort of enterprising young fellow Mark Twain might have invented. An early scene in which he tells his classmates a colorful, surprisingly personal story about Charles Lindbergh is a highlight, and Bradford brings both canny intelligence and naïve innocence to the role. The film is more or less presented from his perspective, so the adults tend to come and go based on what he's up to. A host of colorful figures populate the background of the film, including an empathetic teacher (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark), a smarmy young golfer (Adrian Brody, The Darjeeling Limited), a wealthy-yet-friendly hotel resident (Spalding Gray, Gray's Anatomy), a no-nonsense prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern, Once Upon a Time in America) and an overbearing policeman (John McConnell, The Departed).
King of the Hill may limit its view to a brief period in the life of a single young man, but it nonetheless manages to provide a very satisfactory snapshot of the depression era in the meantime. Time and time again, the film reinforces the sheer difficulty of merely surviving in this era. Every financial decision has to be considered carefully, and so many characters are constantly waiting for an impatient landlord or unforgiving repo man to deliver a punishing blow. There's a great deal of tenderness in the scenes in which these characters find small ways to help each other, the bittersweet sense of community that only a large-scale crisis can provide.
King of the Hill (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection sports a terrific 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that highlights the gorgeous cinematography and impressive set design. Detail is fantastic throughout, and there's a consistent amount of natural grain present that only adds to the warmth of the visuals. Depth is strong throughout, too. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is low-key but effective, delivering the dialogue with clarity and allowing the subtle sound design to work its spell on the viewer. Music plays a relatively minor role in the film, but the material Soderbergh uses is quite effective. Supplements include wonderful new interviews with Soderbergh (19 minutes) and Hotchner (21 minutes), a visual essay on the film (11 minutes), some deleted scenes, a trailer, a DVD copy and a booklet featuring an interview with Soderbergh, an essay by Peter Tonguette and a snippet of Hotchner's book. But wait, there's more!
In an unusual and generous move, Criterion has also included Soderbergh's follow-up feature The Underneath, a crime thriller starring Peter Gallagher and Elizabeth Shue. Soderbergh flat-out loathes the movie, and elaborates on his reasons for disliking it in an exceptionally candid additional interview. While it's undoubtedly one of the weakest films of his career, it's hardly as bad as Soderbergh seems to think it is. It's a peculiar career choice on the heels of this film, but Criterion's inclusion of it (and the accompanying interview) is a very pleasant surprise.
King of the Hill is one of Soderbergh's most emotionally-involving films, a tender-yet-firm examination of a bygone era. Criterion's Blu-ray release is superb, and Soderbergh aficionados will value the inclusion of The Underneath. Highly recommended.
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