A wonderfully low-wattage, free-verse odyssey and a quiet parody and embracement of classical mythopoetic adventures, King of the Hill’s structure lacks the jostled tempo of director Steven Soderbergh’s more revolutionary films, but inconsequentiality, here, is where the heart lies. A tapestry of repetitions and minute improvements in identity and possibility, King of the Hill is a bildungsroman of a more everyday sort than a classical Greek tragedy. The adventurer in this case is Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), an eighth grader in Depression-era Saint Louis whose mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is in a sanitarium for an unspecified disease, whose father (Keroen Krabbe) is a travelling watch salesman who goes on long trips to Kansas and Iowa, and whose younger brother has been shipped away to live with his extended family so his parents can save on money.
The last line sounds like living hell, and it is, but Soderbergh (who both directs and writes) makes no judgements and has no fish to fry. Every character is treated with a piquant mixture of generosity and hard-nosed observation as Soderbergh threads a careful balance, avoiding leaden, objectifying poverty porn with no agency for the impoverished and, on the other end, eschewing bootstrap actualization and empowerment narratives that lionize the poor and aerate their struggles with an atmosphere of endless opportunity and American forgiveness.
Young actor Jesse Bradford’s silent, stone-faced stare tells us as much as Buster Keaton’s did in any film, but while Aaron’s resourcefulness and hard-scrabble existence are the face of the film, Soderbergh spreads out horizontally. He conjures a Capra-esque interplay of people saving-face, wearing necessary facades as they paint one picture of their lives to others, even saying they can help or afford generosity when they are as destitute themselves. Although the film is among Soderbergh’s least overly affected or stylistically inflected works – his most naturalistic, one might say – it also calls on the spirit of the films of the era it depicts, rather than simply the era’s reality.
Altman-esque wide-shots investigate the wide berth of life in St. Louis, locating people with problems equal or close to Aaron’s in the background or the periphery, refusing to limn the film to Aaron even as his story attains a neglected, abandoned, lonely texture. Soderbergh refuses to consecrate any moment or perspective as emblematic of a wider whole or totemic in might. He doesn’t build up the drama so much as spread out, search for momentary images and feelings that reflect a full community of lost souls. And he never retreats into melodramatic grave poetry, always finding time and permitting space for dexterous and multi-faceted feelings that bridge sadness and humor, mournfulness and frivolity, with an interpersonal gusto. Any emotion can come from anywhere. The film is not a conduit of one demarcated. predetermined emotional channel but a catalyst of conflicting feelings and varying tonal registers that sit next to one another and configure a restless tapestry of life.
Grace notes abound. A melancholic conversation with mother across the sanitarium yard positions Aaron as a prisoner in an open-air hoosegow. Aaron’s hat is a mosaic of cigar wrappers, other people’s detritus now Aarons lone treasure. Low-key, anecdotally clever camera movements salivate with Aaron’s desire for hotdogs that are withheld from him. There’s also a sick Pavlovian story of babies being trained not to emote that Soderbergh treats not with horror or humor but an unholy mixture of the two.
Most of King of the Hill plays in this polyvalent place, resonating in multiple directions, never tendentiously layering emotion on thickly but always jutting out in unexpected directions that do not – like most films – build up to a grand history of life or even one moment in time. It’s a film of minor humor and tragic undertows without underline, not a clothesline of moments but an arrangement of feelings and emotions. It’s not that it’s non-committal – that it is too timid to follow its emotions through – but that it is too keen and thoughtful, too aware of the world in its periphery, to consider only what we want it to, to focus down and forget the rogue elements and alternate voices and excited, jumping electrons playing around in the corners and the margins of the story. Although more subtly so than fellow indie-darling Richard Linklater’s same-year film Dazed and Confused, King of the Hill is a many-headed animal of a film.