The first scene of King of the Hill, Steven Soderbergh’s vibrant film about an imaginative boy’s Depression-era struggles and triumphs, shows eighth-grader Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) in closeup, his glistening face a mask of summer in St. Louis. The perspiration is perpetual.
In the equally fine memoir on which the movie is based, author A.E. Hotchner sets the tone thusly:
“Last summer really started May 9th, the day they put the lock on 326. You may think May is too early for summer, but let me tell you, not in St. Louis. In geography we studied about the equator running through Africa and all that, but believe me St. Louis is the equator of the U.S.A. The St. Louis sun passes through about three hundred magnifying glasses.”
Soderbergh, here directing his third feature film and first studio effort, brings animated life to Hotchner’s language. Some, including the filmmaker, feel the movie is too pretty, too painterly and formalist, but as a St. Louis-area native I attest that Soderbergh (who was born in Atlanta and later lived in Louisiana and thus knows a thing or two about humidity) creates a vivid sense of summer in the gateway city; the very walls of the declining hotel in which Aaron lives with his parents and younger brother seem to perspire. And then there are the little details, like a Cardinals game crackling to life on KMOX radio.
And the film does not shy from the horrors of the time. Aaron encounters the wretched conditions of a Hooverville, where he sees the artist neighbor locked out of Room 326; financial ruin leads one character to suicide; a girl suffers seizure because her mother cannot afford medication; Aaron begins to starve. Soderbergh also confronts Aaron’s adolescent rage and fear, which are magnified by the rapid dissolution of his family; his brother is sent to live with relatives in order to save money, his consumptive mother is forced into a sanatorium, and his father leaves for a traveling sales job.
Yet bursting from these dark corners is a bright, warm and often funny film. On the marvelous new Criterion Collection release of King of the Hill, Soderbergh expresses disappointment with some of his stylistic choices. He calls the movie “too beautiful” and says it should have a “rougher, grittier feel.” But I think the approach is effective. The widescreen compositions and rich visual tone of earthy browns, deep burgundies and dark greens (there is little primary color) amplify Aaron’s point of view with a kid-like veneer, which enhances King of the Hill‘s movie-ness and prevents Aaron’s circumstances from seeming overwhelmingly despairing.
As Roger Ebert points out in his King of the Hill review, “This material could make many different kinds of movies.” Soderbergh made the right choices. And the efficient, graceful result makes it seem like he did so without breaking a sweat.
NOTE: The Criterion release also includes the visually intriguing if ultimately flat The Underneath, Soderbergh’s follow-up to King of the Hill and an adaptation of Criss Cross, a novel made into a 1949 film noir. Though one of Soderbergh’s lesser works, The Underneath features gorgeous cinematography by Elliot Davis (who also shot King of the Hill) and glimpses of techniques with color and time deconstruction the filmmaker would later develop in The Limey, Traffic, Out of Sight and Che.