Jesse Bradford gives one of the great kid performances in Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill." Credit: Criterion Collection
'King of the Hill' The Criterion Collection $39.95
In the shockingly frank retrospective interviews included in the new set for his 1993 drama “King of the Hill,” Steven Soderbergh is a bit down on both it and his 1995 follow-up, “The Underneath.” (The latter, oddly, is included as a glorified “special feature.”) For him both films are stiff and overly formalist — failures (at least commercially) that convinced him to briefly abandon Hollywood and start from scratch. Whether you agree with him or not, it seems to have worked: After going guerilla (yielding the magnificent if difficult “Schizopolis”), he returned refreshed, and embarked on one of cinema’s most fruitful runs — only to run away again, this time, he claims, for good. (He just shot the 10-hour TV series "The Knick," which will air on Cinemax.)
And you don’t necessarily have to agree with him. “King of the Hill” — which has nothing to do with propane tanks, stop asking — has long been one of the most inexplicable titles MIA from home video, having never even made it to DVD. Based on A.E. Hotchner’s memoir, it tells of Aaron (Jesse Bradford, in one of the great kid performances), a smart tween trying to survive in 1933 St. Louis. Though crafty, he finds his self-reliance put to the test when he’s abandoned, forced to survive in his family’s run-down hotel home without any money or food.
Soderbergh complains about the warm colors created by his then-regular cinematographer Elliot Davis (though says it’s what he wanted at the time), saying if he did it again he’d make it rougher, more real. But the lack of grit is what gives “King of the Hill” its unusual power. Apart from looking like no other film about the Depression, it goes in lock-step with its hero, who refuses to let circumstances destroy him, even if that makes him delusional. (One bit has a starving Aaron eat pictures of food he cut out of a magazine.) The style might not fit Soderbergh, today or even then, but it fits the material in productive ways. It’s hard to believe this is one of his few screenwriting credits, but you can see why: He’s more loose as a director when he’s collaborating with a writer rather than doing both jobs.
As for “The Underneath,” it’s never had more than a passable reputation and it’s not hard to see why. A liberal remake of the 1949 noir “Criss Cross,” with Peter Gallagher in the Burt Lancaster role, it’s more notable for being the first time he tried some of the stylistic tricks he’d do better in the future. It’s in particular a dry run for “Out of Sight,” with a diced-up chronology and use of filters to keep us aware of where we are in the storyline.
It's a good, personable remake, but only in the last act does it spring fully to life, namely with a scene where our fallen hero entertains a hospital visit from an unfailingly kind man who may not (or may) be a killer sent to whack him. (The actor is Joe Chrest, a Soderbergh regular scene-stealer, who also nicks bits of "King of the Hill" as a swarthy bellhop.) It’s one of Soderbergh’s finest-ever set pieces, plopped in at the tail-end of his least distinctive effort. That his least distinctive work is still a solid piece of craftsmanship should say it all. Soderbergh may not be crazy about it, but you should never listen to filmmakers about their own work.
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