Two major things about Soderbergh’s approach to a memoir adaptation. They’re somewhat connected, so I might not manage to separate them out. King of the Hill has no frame, it has no narration. It has no context. It does not feel, at all, like a “true” story because there’s no attempt to classify itself as a true story. It drops the viewer right in, gives he or she a subtitle notating the setting and time and nothing else. Soderbergh creates, at times, a stylistic euphoria–starts right at the beginning doing it even, maybe the third or fourth scene–and the approach makes King of the Hill different. Even though it’s based on a memoir, by never involving “reality,” Soderbergh makes the plot’s conclusion unsure. Anything could happen.
As innocuous as the story might sometimes get–since Jesse Bradford’s protagonist is so self-sufficient it’s hard to remember he’s thirteen–Soderbergh infuses the film with a constant danger. Sometimes the danger is age-appropriate, sometimes it’s a lot bigger. Around the midway point, I had to remind myself Soderbergh was not telling a story about his youth. I had to remind myself Soderbergh wasn’t alive during the film’s time period, it wasn’t based on his childhood–the film envelops the viewer. Soderbergh immediately establishes his characters and then everything else is experienced at Bradford’s pace. Characters enter and leave the story, with the entire story through Bradford’s perspective. The viewer occasionally gets other things, very brief glimpses from other character’s perspectives, but the whole show is Bradford, which might be why he’s never been able to follow it up.
The other performances are excellent too, with Adrien Brody in the film’s flashiest role. Soderbergh’s cinematic storytelling here is accomplished, there’s no other word. He incites the viewer to figure things out by a character’s presence, not to be cute, but because a successful King of the Hill viewer is a participatory viewer. It might by with the film did so terribly. Also good are Cameron Boyd as Bradford’s brother; Amber Benson as his friend–I find I’m not enumerating the adults as much, which is because of the way the film portrays them. It’s difficult to put them, having just watched the film, in an easy to discuss context. Spalding Gray is quite good in his small part as is Kristin Griffith in her two scenes.
The film’s character relationships are complicated and hard to unravel. Soderbergh manages moments of severe gravity with silence from the characters and Cliff Martinez’s delicate score. Martinez and Soderbergh seem to take some of the tone–and the music’s effect on the tone–from Badlands, which is an odd influence for a movie about a kid–King of the Hill is not a kid’s movie at all. It isn’t a feel good movie. It’s a sometimes unsettling film about survival and self-sufficience. Without ever using the word “depression,” Soderbergh has made one of the best films about the Great Depression.
It’s kind of like Maugham with kids (and in America and during the Great Depression).
Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Soderbergh, based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner; director of photography, Elliot Davis; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Albert Berger, Barbara Maltby and Ron Yerxa; released by Gramercy Pictures.
Starring Jesse Bradford (Aaron), Jeroen Krabbé (Mr. Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan Kurlander), Adrien Brody (Lester Silverstone), Joe Chrest (Ben), John McConnell (‘Big Butt’ Burns), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. McShane), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Peggy Freisen (Mrs. Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian) and John Durbin (Mr. Sandoz).