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 Hotchner’s language to evocative life. The compositions and color palette are painterly, but Soderbergh and his crew also create a vivid sense of a St. Louis summer amid the Great Depression: the oppressive heat and humidity; a Cardinals game crackling to life on KMOX radio; the detailed depths of the declining hotel (the walls of which also seem to perspire) where Aaron lives with his parents and brother; the wretched conditions of a Hooverville, where Aaron sees the artist neighbor locked out of Room 326.
The film does not shy from the horrors of the time. 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 younger 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.
But King of the Hill’s dark corners should not be overstated. It is a lively, funny film full of great scenes (Aaron’s embellished school report on Charles Lindbergh, the rollercoaster ride of saving of his father’s car from repossession, the explosive marble shootout) and wonderful characters (Adrien Brody’s Lester is a sly mentor and conspirator of Aaron, and Lauryn Hill registers in a small role as the elevator operator in the hotel). And Soderbergh has a perfect hero in Bradford, whose Aaron is observant, resourceful, and never demanding of pity as he learns the hard way that life cannot be bent to one’s will.
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 to no primary color) amplify Aaron’s point of view, the larger-than-life nature of the characters he encounters, and the earth-shaking weight of the circumstances he faces.
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 the filmmaker would later develop in greats like The Limey, Traffic and Out of Sight.