Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill, which was shot here in St. Louis nearly 30 years ago, has happily surfaced on the Criterion Channel. The movie long remained vexingly unavailable on DVD, so its belated release on Blu-ray in 2014 — in a deluxe package that also included the director’s subsequent feature, The Underneath — was cause for celebration, and its availability for streaming on Criterion, with several extras, is equally noteworthy.
King of the Hill remains, to my mind, the finest film ever shot in St. Louis (though some might legitimately argue for Up in the Air and John Carpenter devotees will certainly opt for Escape from New York). Soderbergh thinks less highly of the film — it was only his third directorial outing, after all, in an absurdly prolific career — and he notes in an accompanying Criterion interview that he particularly regrets the film’s visual beauty, which is at odds with its difficult subject. But if Soderbergh’s later movies take bolder formal and narrative approaches, with many clearly displaying more ambition, King of the Hill shouldn’t be dismissed.
Cinema St. Louis, I should note, has a long association with the film. In fact, when the film premiered locally in 1993, the screening and after-party served as a welcome fundraiser for what was then known as the St. Louis Film Festival, which had debuted only the year before. In 2001, on the occasion of our 10th edition, the fest — now sporting “International” as part of its name — highlighted St. Louis’ various connections to cinema, and we hosted one of the film’s producers, Ron Yerxa, at a screening of a 16mm print of King of the Hill. Unfortunately, the projector’s exciter bulb, which reads the optical soundtrack, expired only minutes after King of the Hill began, and the film was rendered silent. Yerxa quickly stepped in to entertain the restless audience as I apoplectically bellowed in the projection booth. The blameless victim of my rage, Tivoli manager Dale Sweet, vainly attempted to restore the sound, but no replacement bulb or substitute projector was immediately available, and the show was canceled. Although we later held a makeup screening at Webster University, Yerxa had already departed, and we had to wait until the 2008 festival to finally screen the film properly, this time from a beautiful 35mm print. Despite that disastrous 2001 screening, Yerxa gamely returned, and we at last held a lively if long-delayed post-film conversation.
I also have a modest personal relationship with the film: Shortly after the King of the Hill cast and crew arrived at their St. Louis location, I was contacted about the possibility of writing a brief on-the-set piece for Premiere magazine. Because of subsequent editorial changes at the magazine — and an admitted lack of follow-up on my part — the article was completed and paid for but never actually appeared in print. Even though my piece was disappointingly spiked by Premiere, the assignment gave me privileged access to the set, and I produced an epic chronicle of the shoot for The Riverfront Times. I’ve used King of the Hill’s Criterion appearance as an excuse to blow the digital dust from both the article and my RFT review of the film, which are reproduced below.
Finally, an update on what a few of the folks featured in the article have done since 1992: Yerxa and his Bona Fide Productions partner, Albert Berger, were still early in their producing careers when King of the Hill was made, but they have gone on to produce such exceptional films as Election, Cold Mountain, Little Miss Sunshine, Little Children, The Ice Harvest (based on the novel by St. Louisan Scott Phillips), Nebraska, and The Peanut Butter Falcon. The film’s star, Jesse Bradford, after first becoming something of a teen heartthrob, has moved on to adult roles. Perhaps his most significant work after King of the Hill was as one the principals in Clint Eastwood’s Flag of Our Fathers, but he continues to appear frequently in film and television. Cameron Boyd, the youngster who played the little brother in King of the Hill, did some acting in the years after the film, but he’s been inactive for some time. Especially fanatical Sopranos viewers might remember him for his modest recurring role as Matt Testa, a friend of A.J.’s.
King Makers: On the Set of King of the Hill
Eight-year-old actor Cameron Boyd, a pat of buttery sweetness atop a short stack of five steps, is slowly melting in the St. Louis late-August heat. As he waits for camera and props to be readied and jets to cease their anachronistic roar above this 1930s-dressed street scene, Boyd is joined on the concrete steps by King of the Hill writer-director Steven Soderbergh, who leans in close with a whispered word and is rewarded with a conspiratorial giggle.
The shot at last readied, Boyd is left alone to perform his actorly duties as his character, Sullivan Kurlander. Asked to register surprise and joy at his reunion with older brother Aaron — played by the film’s young star, 12-year-old Jesse Bradford — Boyd on the first take jumps up with such enthusiastic brio that he takes an unscripted dive down the stairs to the hard, cracked sidewalk below. As Soderbergh, the film’s crew, and members of the actor’s real-life family rush as one to pluck him from the ground, Boyd is enveloped in a cloud of emotional concern — which he quickly dispels with a trouper’s wide, sunny smile.
Although far less dramatic, Boyd’s unexpected tumble to the pavement traces, in abbreviated form, the same narrative arc as King of the Hill: the abandonment, precipitous fall, and survival of a tough, precocious youth.
Based on a short, barely fictionalized memoir published in 1972 by author A.E. Hotchner, King of the Hill follows the declining fortunes of the Kurlander family during two long, hot summer months in 1933 St. Louis. As the story runs its tumultuous course, Aaron — the book’s preteen first-person narrator and film’s principal character — is slowly stripped of all physical and psychological support: One by one, brother, mother, father, and friends disappear, leaving him to fend off the repleviners and creditors, to survive alone, trapped without food in the family’s hotel-room apartment.
Unrelentingly grim in summary, the novel is actually leavened with considerable humor. “It reads like a Chaplin-esque story,” says Jeroen Krabbé, who plays Aaron’s beleaguered immigrant father. “It’s very moving, it’s very funny.”
Soderbergh hopes to retain the book’s sardonic wit and sense of play, but King of the Hill is scarcely a Depression-era Home Alone. “I feel — and this will thrill Universal (the film’s distributor) — that this is emotionally a combination of a Truffaut film and a De Sica film,” says Soderbergh. “All that means is trying to achieve some sort of emotional resonance without resorting to any tried-and-true Hollywood clichés for wrenching an audience. It’s about being as direct as possible with the actors communicating to the audience — letting the audience feel it instead of pushing them to feel it. It’s not necessarily a physical style. It’s more a tone and a subtlety that you don’t really encounter when you look at Hollywood movies about kids.”
Because the plight of Aaron and his family is owed to economic hard times, King of the Hill has an obvious timeliness despite its period setting. “I loved the way it correlates to today — the parallels between 1992 and 1933,” says Lisa Eichhorn, who co-stars as Mrs. Kurlander. “I think it’s very depressing out there today, and it’s very hard on families.”
Soderbergh, however, is as much concerned with the film’s psychological truth as its sociological relevance or historical accuracy. Hotchner remembers a conversation about the subject with Robert Redford, who helped set up the movie through his Wildwood Enterprises, when he was first approached by the actor about the rights to King of the Hill. Recalls Hotchner: “Early on I said to Redford, ‘I haven’t talked to Soderbergh, but I understand this is a young guy, and this is an account that’s rooted deeply in a time he wouldn’t have any connection with. I don’t understand what his interest is.’ What he said was that Soderbergh identified with the psyche of the boy, that he felt it was universal and had nothing to do with the Depression, that it was about the problems of being a 12-year-old boy under adversity.”
“The story obviously has some direct personal interest to him,” says Ron Yerxa, who with partner Albert Berger and Wildwood’s Barbara Maltby is one of the film’s trio of producers. “It’s about a very smart young boy who is undergoing all this external hardship, pressure. It’s a story about personal survival, struggle. And I think at a certain point those were very powerful themes for Steven to explore.”
Certainly following the enormous critical and commercial success of sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh must have experienced a hint of Aaron’s terror and isolation. “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here,” the director noted fatalistically — if humorously — in 1989 after becoming the youngest winner of Cannes’ Palme d’or. Like Aaron, Soderbergh sensed he was headed for an inevitable fall — a dire prediction soon enough realized with Kafka, his largely unseen and distinctly underappreciated expressionistic dark comedy.
As in sex, lies, and videotape — elements of which were perhaps more directly autobiographical — Soderbergh finds himself in King of the Hill again dipping into the well of his own experience. “Despite having been raised in aggressively middle-class surroundings in a subdivision, I still felt like I was that kid,” explains Soderbergh. Particularly appealing to the director was Aaron’s sense of reserve, his ability to disguise or hide his thoughts and feelings (a trait he shares, though to a less unhealthy degree, with James Spader’s character in sex, lies, and videotape).
“I really related strongly to the sense of having masks that you construct to hide what you are thinking,” says Soderbergh. “One thing that I imposed on the film that isn’t necessarily in the book is taking that idea and pushing it toward a transformation, of him emerging from this sort of siege that he undergoes and having him come out of that and essentially eclipse his father, eclipse his parents. He moves beyond them and into a new area. That’s something that I’ve really pushed — that idea of transformation. The stripping away and then the disposal of all these masks was something that I was really drawn to.”
As much as King of the Hill resonated internally, Soderbergh was initially hesitant to take too many liberties with the story because of its autobiographical roots. “It took a long time for me to feel free to invent things, because I knew it was so personal,” says Soderbergh. After remaining “obscenely faithful” to the book in his first draft of the screenplay, however, Soderbergh soon realized “that wasn’t going to cut it.”
Still, says producer Barbara Maltby, “The screenplay stays very close to its source. Only in what we couldn’t put in is it different. Hotchner was incredibly gratified. He’s had so much experience that he knew what to expect from the process. It not only bore a close relationship to the story that he lived, but it was true to its values and its purposes.”
“They capture very well the terror of that time from the point of view of kids,” agrees Hotchner. “And also their courage and ability to survive. That’s really what I was looking for in the screenplay, which I think is very well done.”
“Hotchner was just amazing,” says Soderbergh. “None of us knew what to expect, and I was certainly very hesitant to send him anything, but he’s been incredibly supportive. He came when we started shooting, and he had a list of 10 comments about the script, all of which were very cogent and helpful. And then when he was here for a couple of days, he was able to give some background about his state of mind and the specifics of what he was going through. He’s just been really gracious.
“I think it takes a lot of courage to say, ‘I think they’re going to make a good movie out of my book.’ It’s become more fashionable to distance yourself from the whole thing. In a situation like this, where you have a memoir, there was not a hint of ‘Gee, couldn’t you have used that?’ or ‘Why did you make this up?’ Never a hint of that. I can’t say that I would be that magnanimous under the circumstances.”
The biggest hurdle the film had to clear in translating King of the Hill to screen was finding a means of preserving the novel’s voice, of capturing Aaron’s unique worldview. “The voice was something that worried all of us,” says Soderbergh. “From day one, I said I will not use voice-over. It’s so rarely used in a way that’s interesting. But I began to worry as I sat down to work on the screenplay that I had been charmed by Hotchner’s literary gifts and that I was just blinded by that and that there actually wasn’t a movie in this book and that that voice would just disappear. It took a while to find it. What finally did it was what we call ‘Aaron-vision,’ which are these three sequences in the film in which he has reveries/dreams/hallucinations — they kind of cross all those boundaries. That really took it into an area where you understood how he sees things and what he picks up on and how these images affect him.
“When the idea was stumbled on, all of us felt that we now understood what was different about this 12-year-old, what sets him apart from the other people in his class — that he has the sensitivity and the perception of somebody who will someday be an artist and who definitely views things in a different context than most kids. Once we came up on that idea, possibilities started to open up. We realized we could go anywhere with that. We could really excavate the interior of his mind with these sorts of images.”
Aaron’s voice, of course, cannot be heard without an actor to speak the screenplay’s words. King of the Hill features an intriguingly diverse ensemble that includes Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, and Karen Allen in addition to Krabbé and Eichhorn (whose roles here and in the remake of The Vanishing effectively mark her return to American films after a prolonged absence), but the filmmakers knew that locating Aaron was key.
“The idea of a 12-year-old at the center of the film was really terrifying,” admits Soderbergh, “because I knew the film would literally live or die on this performance, no matter what I did. The consensus was that at 12 or 13 you don’t have enough years to build a character who is separate from yourself — that just comes from living. Basically you just have to find somebody who is that person. So we hunkered down and decided we were going to look as long as we had to look to find this kid.”
“The idea was to find somebody fresh, not Macaulay Culkin,” says Yerxa. “Casting director Deborah Aquila put out a search, and Steven, who is very quick in making every decision, saw a lot of people but was very decisive on Jesse Bradford.”
“It was hysterical,” says Soderbergh. “Jesse was the first person I saw for the role. He came in and he was great. I talked with him for 10 minutes and he left, and I turned to Deborah and said, ‘Well, that’s it, what do we do now? If I cast him right now, Universal’s going to have a heart attack.’ She said, ‘Well, we’ll keep looking. That’s the guy to beat and we’ll keep looking.’ Nobody beat him — he was just amazing. I think we probably saw 40 or 50. It was just so funny that he was the first one.
“I saw somebody in California who was very good, but the difference was when I talked to Jesse after he had read. Jesse was very professional and very civil, but I also got a sense that there was no way he was going to let me know what he was really thinking about this process or about me. He wasn’t going to let me see all the way in, and I thought, ‘That’s exactly what Aaron would do. That’s Aaron. He keeps something for himself.’ I realized that in an interior way it was critical that the actor who was going to play Aaron have that tendency. Jesse’s a great kid — he’s not distant at all — but at the same time he’s really able to put that veil on, and that’s what I needed. He just blows me away. He’s incredible.”
Bradford’s talents are genetically bred and environmentally nurtured. Both of his parents are actors, and even at 12 he has already worked extensively in film (Falling in Love and Presumed Innocent, among others) and television. (Bradford proudly notes that he went on his first audition, for a Q-Tips commercial, at eight months old. He got the part.) Aaron, however, is his first starring role, and Soderbergh marvels at the ease with which Bradford has shouldered the added burden. “I speak to Jesse as I would speak to any adult actor,” says Soderbergh. “He’s just incredibly bright. If he has any sort of process that he uses to get ready, I certainly haven’t seen it. It seems to be completely unconscious. He’s just so right there: He reacts spontaneously to whatever happens. He doesn’t go in with this sort of premeditated ‘This is what I do’ — he’s just incredibly reactive. He watches everything. He’s amazing by any standard, child or adult.”
“My experience on this film is that Jesse hasn’t needed much from us,” says Bradford’s mother, Terry Porter. “I feel he’s finally sprouted wings and gone off. All our lives, around the dinner table, we’ve talked about acting — acting principles, what we believed, different methods you can try or not try. But here there’s been an amazing lack of communication — he doesn’t seem to need it from us anymore. He’s just gone. It’s great.”
“I’ve noticed that, too,” says Bradford. “Even at the beginning of shooting, I was running lines with her at night — whatever the scenes were for the next day — and now I look at them by myself. But they still give me great advice when I need it.”
His growing skill and professionalism notwithstanding, Bradford remains very much a kid. Remarkably unaffected and refreshingly down-to-earth, he shrugs off the extravagant praise of his director and fellow actors. “It’s an easy living,” Bradford says. “It’s better than working in the bottle-cap factory or whatever. It’s tough sometimes, but I like it.”
Obviously fortunate in their choice of leading man (or, rather, boy), King of the Hill’s makers continued their run of luck with their selection of location. Although Hotchner grew up in St. Louis and his memoir is set here, any number of other options were considered before the decision was made to shoot in this cinematically underused city (White Palace is one of the few recent movies to film extensively in St. Louis).
“I think it’s really important that we be here in St. Louis,” says Soderbergh, “and I’m glad we came. For a lot of logistical reasons, I’m glad we came, because it’s a very well-preserved city for our purposes. But there’s just something about being in the city in which it took place. That filters through somehow. We won’t know until we put it together, but I’m convinced that it’s just not going to look like cities that you see in every movie. That’s important.”
Especially fortuitous given the film’s modest $8 million budget was the availability — free of charge — of the city’s shuttered Kiel Auditorium for interiors. Closed in anticipation of its demolition and replacement with a larger, more modern arena facility, Kiel is an intact, fully functional, and utterly empty building.
King of the Hill’s hotel set — in which a significant portion of the film’s action takes place — rises from the middle of the auditorium’s floor. A scoreboard still dangles mutely from the ceiling, a large and dusty American flag hangs above the vacant proscenium stage, and, enveloped in darkness, thousands of seats seem to await an audience for the making of this new drama. Snaking throughout the auditorium is a large, flexible conduit that carries air-conditioning to those parts of the vast building that require cooling, thereby saving the prohibitive cost of icing down the entire structure. When shooting, the a/c is shut down because of its noisy clatter, but thankfully St. Louis’ notoriously oppressive heat — which plays a prominent role in Hotchner’s novel — has largely held itself in abeyance throughout the summer shoot.
“Kiel is great,” says production designer Gary Frutkoff. “It’s one of your dream places. A lot of us are like little boys exploring the place. And there is so much room — you’re always confined so much by room when you want to build a set.”
Uninhibited by such constraints, Frutkoff’s work consumes a sizable area of what was once the basketball floor for the St. Louis University Billikens. The smell of recently cut wood and fresh paint drifts through the auditorium, and the set’s exterior reveals its newness with naked plywood. Inside, however, in the spare rooms of the hotel, the scratched woodwork, peeling dirty-yellow paint, water stains, and edges-curled wallpaper recall another time. In the room Aaron shares with his brother and parents, a few precious toys rest on the nightstand, pictures hang crookedly on the wall, and one of the two double beds sits precariously on boxes.
Preparing an emotionally wrenching scene in that cramped room — in which Aaron’s father announces to the stunned boys that Sullivan is to be sent away temporarily to live with their uncle, thus beginning the slow disintegration of the family — Soderbergh strikes the casual observer as soft-spoken and curiously unimposing during his quiet supervision of a pretake run-through. Dressed in trademark prole uniform — green baseball cap, black T-shirt, jeans or dark-green shorts, and black Converse high-tops — Soderbergh, with his short buzz-cut and wire rims, looks more like student than professor. And as male grips stroll by in dresses, pearls, dainty gloves, and women’s hats — “It’s cross-dressing day for the crew,” someone helpfully explains — Soderbergh’s control of the film seems loose at best.
Like the artificially aged interior of Frutkoff’s set, however, appearances deceive. “If any film is an American auteur film, this is,” asserts Yerxa. “Steven’s the writer of the adaptation, he’s the director, he’s the editor — he’s the visionary of the whole thing. In a sense he almost operates as a producer, too. Steven doesn’t take the possessory credit on this film — it won’t say ‘A Steven Soderbergh Film’ out of his own sense of humility — but almost every decision on the film is Steven’s. The rest of us are a support group to Steven.”
“Steven sets the tone for the whole production,” echoes producer Albert Berger. “It’s an incredibly even-tempered group. There are really no hysterical personalities involved, and I think that starts with him. The shoot has been going very smoothly, even though it’s a tough schedule, an eight-week sprint.”
Soderbergh’s talent with actors is vividly apparent from the performances in sex, lies, and videotape, and as expected his cast members are as effusive in their praise as his producers. “I consider Steven to be one of the best moviemakers around,” says Krabbé, who worked with the director previously in Kafka. “I’m in love with this guy. He gives you all the space you need, he sees everything, and when he says something, it’s always right. No bullshit. He’s very quiet, he’s just there. And you know that the captain of the ship is the best captain. It’s a safe journey for an actor. I feel very secure in his hands.”
“It’s a wonderful experience,” says Eichhorn. “He’s always there, and he knows what he wants, and he’s not in any way wishy-washy or ineffectual. Steven’s very clear, but he also accepts anything that I want to give him or try as an actor, and that’s really wonderful to be allowed that freedom.”
If the actors appreciate his openness to change, the producers love Soderbergh’s preparation. “Steven’s not a tinkerer after the fact,” says Maltby. “He’s very disciplined. The discipline means that he’s thought ahead of time, but he’s not inflexible. And in our case we have to move very quickly, because Jesse is in almost every scene in the movie, and he works shorter hours than adult actors. We can’t afford to fool around with the time.”
Soderbergh says simply, “I like to be prepared in a very unprepared way, because I do want to be surprised and not talk things to death. I don’t want to lock the actors into anything.”
“Steven allows for improvisation and finding your way with your co-actors and the kids,” says Krabbé. “Especially the kids, because you can’t drill the kids. That’s impossible. You have to be very friendly and fatherly and understanding about what’s going on inside them. And Steven does it so well, because he himself is still a kid.”
Kids, in fact, appear to rule on this therefore exceptional set. Bradford, Boyd, and their families — siblings and parents — have surprisingly free run of the Kiel. The children are well behaved and even the unrelated adults are generously accommodating. To anyone expecting tension or intrigue involving insistently demanding parents or petulant young stars, the atmosphere is almost nauseatingly congenial.
“I think that there is a very familial sense on the set,” says Eichhorn. “There’s not bad language, or a lot of talk about carousing the night before, or talk about who did what to whom, or bawdy humor. It’s gentle. It’s very conducive to the work that needs to be done, and Jesse has a lot of work to do.”
Krabbé, whose own family paid an extended visit to the St. Louis shoot, is especially playful and fatherly. Given a break while closeups of others are shot, Krabbé teases and entertains Boyd’s younger sister, bouncing her in his lap and skipping off with her, hand in hand, to find a snack.
Boyd’s mother could scarcely be more thankful. “If I had to fantasize about the ideal movie experience for Cameron,” she says, “this would be it. Steven is just fantastic. He’s decisive but very quiet and gentle. He’s great with kids.” Obviously relaxed around children, Soderbergh seems to put them at ease as well. When Boyd is required to laugh in a reaction shot, for example, Soderbergh drops to his knees and, out of camera range, tugs at the boy’s shorts and tickles his legs. The resulting take has a naturalistic sincerity.
Krabbé, still slightly nostalgic for the more open and cooperative filmmaking of his native Holland, generally finds American sets — with the stars isolated in their trailers — somewhat lonely. “That’s why I like productions like this one,” he says, “where it’s low-budget and everyone has to work very hard at it. We know each other very well — it’s a small crew and a very homey atmosphere.”
“The production company is called Populist Pictures,” Porter amplifies, “and the name sort of weaves its way through the attitude. There’s not a strong hierarchy, where the producers don’t talk to you if you’re not in the pecking order. It’s a very friendly set. Another really amazing thing is that Steven is such an open-minded guy that he’ll talk to anybody and listen to any opinion, including a lowly stage mother. It improves the situation for everybody.”
Porter cites a telling incident that occurred during Hotchner’s visit to the set early in the shoot. Bradford was drawing with painful care a circle in the dust in which to shoot marbles. Noting the awkwardness of her son’s movements, Porter asked Hotchner how he would have performed the same act, and the author showed her how it was done correctly — with a let’s-get-on-with-it nonchalance. “Some amazing amount of guts took over me,” Porter recalls, “and I darted in just before a take, tapped Steven on the shoulder, and said, ‘Steven, Hotchner doesn’t want to interfere, but he just told me how they really did it.’ I told him and he altered the take. He took that from me. That’s a great filmmaker: He’s there to listen and learn and be flexible and be creative.”
“If something’s not working, then you just tear it down and start over again,” explains Soderbergh. “I have this foundation of good people around me, talented people, and an atmosphere in which people feel they can speak out — ‘What if we did this?’ or ‘What if we did that?’ It’s very loose: There are discussions with all sorts of people about what’s going on, from the producers to the grips and assistant directors. It’s not like a free-for-all, with people babbling all at once, but if people have an idea and it’s really legitimate, then they can say it.
“My method or my theory,” Soderbergh concludes, “is that basically you’re trying to orchestrate and induce a series of fortunate accidents. And so I just try to get all those cars into the intersection and hope that they dance in a way that’s wonderful.”
With King of the Hill, he’s hoping for a gloriously massive pileup.
In summary, the St. Louis-set King of the Hill sounds eerily like a Depression-era Home Alone: Precocious preteen, abandoned by mom, pop, and baby bro, holes up solo in the family’s 1930s hotel-room apartment, imaginatively battling the threatening adult world of repo men and rent-collecting landlords. Heart-warming! Hilarious! Hit!
But the writer-director of King of the Hill is Steven Soderbergh, not John Hughes, and the film he’s made is closer in spirit to his serious-minded sex, lies, and videotape than to Planes, Trains & Automobiles. As Soderbergh asserted during the movie’s shoot here last summer, “I feel that this is emotionally a combination of a Truffaut film and a De Sica film.” Although time will ultimately determine if King of the Hill merits comparison with The 400 Blows or Shoeshine, the film’s honest portrayal of a harsh adolescence and its largely unsentimental tone make it a legitimate heir to those classics.
Based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner, King of the Hill tells the story of his autobiographical surrogate, 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), who is compelled by difficult circumstances to graduate from childhood into a painfully adult world during the movie’s course. Slowly stripped of his support system — his younger brother (Cameron Boyd) leaves to live with relatives, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is forced into a sanitarium by tuberculosis, and his struggling salesman father (Jeroen Krabbé) sets off on a multi-week road trip — Aaron is left alone in the family’s shabby room. Bad soon turns to worse as arrangements to keep him supplied with food collapse and the hotel’s management decides to evict. Aaron effectively becomes a prisoner, subsisting on bread and water in his sweltering cage of a room.
The grim heaviness of the plot is lightened by a surprising amount of humor in the film and especially Hotchner’s book, whose amusing first-person narration makes clear that, however pathetic his state, Aaron is never in danger of succumbing to despair. Soderbergh’s decision not to use voice-over — probably a wise one — deprives the film of that ironic perspective, requiring Jesse Bradford’s performance to communicate Aaron’s buoyant spirit, his intelligence and iron will, and he proves altogether remarkable. In tightening Hotchner’s already-slim narrative by combining characters, reducing secondary roles, and deleting anecdotal tangents, Soderbergh further burdens Bradford, asking him to carry the bulk of the film on his slim but obviously strong shoulders. Fellow hotel residents such as Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern), Mr. Sandoz (John Durbin) and Ella (Amber Benson) — even Aaron’s parents — become more iconic figures than full characters. Aaron thus is absolutely central throughout — not only figuratively but literally, with Soderbergh often shooting him in closeup — and the film owes its success to Bradford’s gravity and restraint, his almost preternatural confidence.
(The laserlike intensity of Soderbergh’s focus on Aaron will disappoint those searching for St. Louis landmarks and faces, which are not only period-dressed and largely unrecognizable but also used exclusively for coloration and out-of-focus background to Aaron’s foreground actions. Another local note: Contrary to speculation, the Hill of the movie’s title is metaphoric — and highly ironic — and does not refer to St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood.)
King of the Hill’s ending succumbs ever so slightly to the Hollywood sentimentality that the film otherwise so studiously avoids, but even here Soderbergh allows a certain tension to remain crackling in the air. The problems evident in Aaron’s uneasy relationship with his father — unsympathetically portrayed with appropriate stiffness and emotional distance by Krabbé — are not resolved with a simple hug, and King of the Hill resists pulling too strongly at our heartstrings. A smart, subtle film, King of the Hill will perhaps suffer financially for its brave resistance of feel-good Hollywood manipulation, but it’s a far better film for its honesty.