King of the Hill

(Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1993)


Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill is an overlooked movie of careful, delicate quality.

Based on the autobiography of A. E. Hotchner, it presents, in a markedly unsentimental manner, the story of a highly dysfunctional American family during the Depression.

Young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) watches passively as every member of his family leaves their home base for reasons of work, ill health or poverty. Wandering the corridors of a large guest-house, he tentatively interacts with the other occupants. At his school no one knows any of this, for Aaron is a compulsive, colourful liar.

The genre of the cinematic memoir, comprising vivid vignettes from a child's viewpoint, enjoyed a resurgence from John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987) to Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes (1992). Soderbergh utilises some of the essential aspects of the genre (such as the oblique presentation of grand historical events), while wisely eschewing its more hackneyed conventions (such as wistful voice-over narration or overkill on the saccharine pop music of the period). He is especially good at blending actors of diverse skills and styles (Jeroen Krabbé, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray) into an appealing ensemble.

Soderbergh has had an unusual career path. His debut feature was the wildly over-acclaimed sex, lies, and videotape (1989). His ambitious follow-up Kafka (1991) received lukewarm notices. However, it was probably this latter film that fixed his characteristic filmmaking style, a combination of eye-popping, wide-angle, off-kilter shots in the Orson Welles mode with quiet, intimately staged scenes of character interaction.

King of the Hill, like Soderbergh's fine contribution to the video anthology Fallen Angels (1993), is an accomplished piece of film craft and a drama of precisely understated emotion.

MORE Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal, The Limey, Ocean's Eleven, Solaris, The Underneath, Traffic, The Knick

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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