Steven Soderbergh’s first film, the Palme d’Or winning Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) ushered in a new era of American independent film both due to its quality and its box-office breakthrough. His follow-up, Kafka (1991) was the reality-bending follow-up, which failed to gather the same acclaim or success. His third film, King of the Hill (1993) does not have much in common with either besides its small budget; produced by a mini-major and distributed by Universal, it is the chronicle of a Depression-era child (Jesse Bradford )trying to get by on his own. King of the Hill is based on Aaron Edward Hotchner’s novel, but Aaron could just as well have come out of a Mark Twain adventure. Soderbergh wrote, directed, and edited, and he makes St. Louis feel like a familiar town, bringing a familiarity that makes Aaron just like any of us may have been as children.
Aaron is a clever boy, thanks largely to his friendship with the older Lester (Adrien Brody). Whenever Aaron needs to move a car, make a buck, find nicer clothes, Lester is the man. Armed with a pocket knife and survival skills that were probably honed in much the same way that we see Aaron hone his, Lester is a quick-thinking, charismatic youth who, like everyone else, does what he can to get by, even if in his case it means falling on the wrong side of the law. Theft during the Great Depression might be immoral, but Aaron’s parents send his brother away to save money, and then his mother is sent to a sanitarium and his father leaves on business. Are their actions anymore moral? King of the Hill strays away from this question, but it makes Lester a more sympathetic character, and it implies an invisible backstory to the friendship.
It’s Lester who saves the car that Aaron’s father takes for business, and it is probably Lester who taught Aaron how they can go to great, out-of-district school full of kids far wealthier than they. It may also have been Lester who gave Aaron the advice that he passes on to his brother: “Only steal from fat kids, and never steal dessert.”
Lester aside, King of the Hill’s supporting cast is underdeveloped. Billy, whom Aaron saves from bullies by shooting marbles better than any of them is a means of us seeing Billy lie about his parents to protect his false, wealthy image; one girl who befriends Aaron disappears too soon, moving to where her epilepsy can be treated; the other girl (Katherine Heigl, in her second career role) disappears for a reason that, given her displayed interest in Aaron, is insufficient; Mr. Mongo (Spalding Gray, in his first of three Soderbergh films), Aaron’s neighbor, the only one who takes interest in Aaron’s collection of cigar bands, has a relationship with a prostitute that adds nothing to the story and also has a rushed end; Aaron’s teacher is sympathetic but underused; a police officer is nothing more than comedic relief. These characters do not make good foils, as they paint Aaron as a more passive figure than he is, roping him into things without benefits or telling us things we already know about him. Aaron’s lies about his parents and his desperation for food are never displayed gratuitously, but they are not displayed with any versatility, either. Each supporting character feels like an unfinished subplot that Aaron, desperate, resourceful, and caring as he is, would not write off as quickly as Soderbergh does. Even the elevator operator (future Grammy-winner Lauryn Hill), who is unique in that she is recurrent, is more an accurate detail of the Great Depression than a substantial addition to the film.
The remedy is Jesse Bradford, the fantastic young actor portraying Aaron, whose facial expressions are wonderfully varied, painting Aaron as a full picture, calculating every way to approach unexpected situations, a genuinely concerned boy who enjoys a free meal but also enjoys getting others out of trouble. It’s quite telling that Aaron seems to be most complex when he is alone on screen. We learn more from watching him fill a plate with magazine cutouts of a nice meal than in watching Lester bail him out or an empty exchange with Mr. Mongo.
King of the Hill often strays away from character study and toward a family-friendly, Hollywood drama of perseverance. The ending, while heartwarming, is infuriating in how unabashedly it conforms to happy endings. It makes Aaron’s journey feel like a game of waiting instead of a carefully constructed game of intelligence and resourcefulness. As King of the Hill, its power moves from how Aaron deals with difficulty to how difficulty drags him along. Aaron becomes a passive hero rather than an active one, making the film more heartwarming than inspiring. Camera angles are occasionally skewed, and the flushed earth tones prevent Aaron’s world from being striking, but that’s the extent of the subjectivity Soderbergh gives us.
King of the Hill reminded me very much of Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. Keep your eyes out for a comparative essay in the coming days.