Orphans haven’t got either a father
or a mother, you see, and nobody to take care of them or love them.
—James Agee, A Death in the Family
A common theme was sounded by critics when Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill was released in the summer of 1993. What is he doing this time? they all seemed to be asking.
It had been four years since Soderbergh was acclaimed the world over for sex, lies, and videotape (1989), his adroit, au courant drama set in his native Baton Rouge. He followed that blue-ribbon debut with Kafka (1991), a morose but captivating study of Franz K. that frustrated expectations. Then came King of the Hill, which was something else again: an adaptation of A. E. Hotchner’s memoir of being a penurious stripling during the Great Depression.
The film confirmed the impression that Soderbergh was impossible to grab ahold of. In her admiring review in the New York Times, Janet Maslin observed that “King of the Hill bears no substantial resemblance” to the films that came before it, and although Roger Ebert considered it Soderbergh’s best film to date, he nonetheless found it a curious choice for a third film, “since it has no apparent connection with his first two.”
For Soderbergh, however, these early efforts were all linked by main characters “who feel isolated from their surroundings and who find themselves at odds with people around them,” as he explained at the time in an interview with the Boston Sunday Globe. This introductory trio kicked off a long-term interest in depicting solitary souls in an unwelcoming world. And to that King of the Hill added a deep feeling for the tenuousness of family bonds, a theme the filmmaker returned to most vividly in The Limey (1999) and Traffic (2000), with their remote, often absent fathers who leave behind families split open. While Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) in King of the Hill is not literally made an orphan, his problems are the same, and Soderbergh demonstrates that few predicaments in drama are as potent. He is made a stranger in his town, his school, his home.
Aaron is a kind of preadolescent forebear of James Spader’s Graham in sex, lies, and videotape. They are both fabulists, but while Graham is ashamed of his background as a “pathological liar,” Aaron concocts his fibs with the relish of an O. Henry in short pants. In the opening scene, he addresses his eighth-grade class on the subject of American heroes. He has chosen Charles Lindbergh, but instead of just cataloging the aviator’s feats, he gives the impression that the two of them are best pals. He tells of being awoken one night by a long-distance call from Lindbergh (“That’s okay, slim,” the young lad says, forgiving the interruption. “What can I do for you?”), counseling his chum on what food to take with him on his long flight (a cheese sandwich is suggested).
Aaron is applauded for his inventiveness by his teacher, the kind Miss Mathey (Karen Allen), and is followed by a clearly well-to-do youngster who has selected John D. Rockefeller as his idol, praising the Standard Oil founder for his charity toward “the poor unfortunates” during these tough times. While we know nothing of Aaron’s home life at this point, the contrast between his talk and that of his fellow student hints at the reason for his extravagant fiction: as we soon learn, he is among “the poor unfortunates,” and contriving a close relationship with Lindbergh may be the only way he can hold his head high and burnish his image among his peers. That class consciousness is not limited to those old enough to drive is among the film’s freshest insights; much later, there is a particularly memorable split-diopter shot that holds Aaron’s pained face in the same frame as a group of uppity students behind him who mock his ill-fitting clothes (“They don’t even look like they’re his”).
When we first see where Aaron and Sullivan (Cameron Boyd)—his towheaded, troublemaking little brother—live, we come to understand just how bleak their situation is. The Kurlander family is domiciled in the scruffy-looking Empire Hotel in downtown St. Louis, inhabiting an inadequate room overloaded with furniture and trinkets. At one point, Miss Mathey expresses confusion about Aaron’s address, and he reaches deep into his imagination to conceal his situation, giving her the information for a wished-for apartment complex (the Carleton Court) that the family is too poor to afford. He explains that any correspondence sent there must be addressed to another name, since his father has a position with the government. In truth, Mr. Kurlander (Jeroen Krabbé) is an irregularly employed salesman who keeps going only because of the promise of a handful of job prospects. Each day, Aaron expectantly checks the mail for something from the Hamilton Watch Company; his investment in his father’s flailing career is touching. “There’s big money in watches,” Aaron proudly tells the blissfully disinterested elevator operator, played by a delightful, pre-stardom Lauryn Hill (always seen in the left foreground of the shot, on the way up or down, and always seen chewing gum).
The film is remarkably attuned to the extremes of hope and dread that inhabit a child’s imagination. Rushing into their room after school, Aaron instantly spots the damp eyes of his mother (Lisa Eichhorn), prompting him to ask, “What’s the matter—did somebody die?” No one has expired, but the Kurlander family is about to get smaller for the first time: Sullivan will be deposited with the never-seen Uncle Nathan, with the upshot being a savings of one dollar a week. If possible, Aaron takes the news harder than his soon-to-be-traveling sibling, and he naively suggests that he can earn that much money himself if given the chance. “He’s finishing the eighth grade—he’s already the businessman,” grumbles Mr. Kurlander. It is bad enough that Aaron probably could not make the requisite one dollar a week, but even if he could, Mr. Kurlander’s disdainful tone suggests he would be met with resentment.
Strikingly, Aaron’s entrepreneurship is contrasted with Mr. Kurlander’s. While many of Aaron’s endeavors (including breeding canaries) are hopeless, at least they reflect his vim and vigor—as though he were spending time with Dale Carnegie in between his soirees with Charles Lindbergh. On the other hand, the sole image we see of Mr. Kurlander pounding the pavement is a study in ineffectualness: he rests forlornly on some steps at midday with a carton full of unsold wickless candles at his side. Aaron spots his father as he is being driven to a friend’s house, without the other occupants of the car realizing who it is they are gawking at. “There’s that salesman I was telling you about,” the friend’s mother says innocently. “Who would buy a candle you can’t even light?” For all of Aaron’s resourcefulness, however, he still needs a family. But as the film chugs along, his starts to thin out, one by one. First Sullivan departs. Then Mrs. Kurlander is dispatched to a sanitarium. Eventually, only Aaron and Mr. Kurlander remain in their room at the Empire Hotel. Emptied of souls, it starts to look cavernous.
Well-known now for his stylistic licentiousness, Soderbergh has made visually gutsier films than King of the Hill—for example, Full Frontal (2002), shot on MiniDV—but not better-looking ones. King of the Hill has a rich, satiny look, courtesy of cinematographer Elliot Davis, a style characteristic of the sleek finish he would later bring to The Underneath (1995), Gray’s Anatomy (1996), and Out of Sight (1998). “We went into an Edward Hopper vein, where the reds are always burgundy. The yellows are mustard,” Soderbergh told Positif in 1993. And though painterly, the photography is far from sedate: in one lovely moment, a starving Aaron loads his plate with food at a graduation party, but he keeps being interrupted by guests before he can eat—the camera follows the plate each time it is set down, picked up, and set down again, a metaphor for Aaron’s exasperation.
One of the pleasures of King of the Hill is the panoply of nefarious, almost Dickensian characters who lurk about the Empire Hotel, such as the loutish bellhop who relishes locking deadbeat guests out of their rooms and stashing away their belongings, or the pudgy cop who torments latchkey kids who pilfer apples. The film also makes pointed, if subtle, references to current events: another job being dangled in front of Mr. Kurlander is with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Yet Soderbergh never pins the blame for the family’s fate on external forces. Instead, he speaks of the drama in interpersonal terms.
“Part of the movie,” Soderbergh explained to the Boston Sunday Globe, “is about realizing that your parents aren’t the idealized people you once thought they were.” When Mr. Kurlander at last gains employment with the Hamilton Watch Company, the announcement hardly feels like the big save, since he has to leave immediately to go to work. Racing out of town in a car that is due to be repossessed, he offers some tossed-off fatherly advice—“You’re going to be okay,” “You’re a very smart boy,” and the like—but it sounds halfhearted. While Soderbergh does not blame Mr. Kurlander for jumping headlong into work, the emphasis remains on Aaron’s feeling
Indeed, we never see Mr. Kurlander on his travels, but we see plenty of Aaron as he tries to make do. He has to subsist on a lot of dinner rolls, so, in one especially poignant scene, he pathetically constructs a make-believe meal from food illustrations clipped out of a glossy magazine. He must also duck the hotel’s management, due to nonpayment of the bill. On the advice of the manager—a wonderful cameo by the late Ron Vawter, who is simultaneously businesslike and sympathetic, much as he was as the psychiatrist in sex, lies, and videotape—Aaron seeks out his “nearest relative” to come up with the needed $172. That means his mother, but when he gazes at her empty expression behind the iron gate of the sanitarium, he is too gallant to state his reason for coming. Besides, he knows she does not have the money.
In the end, Mr. Kurlander procures a multiroom apartment at the Carleton Court (thanks to the WPA job that came through while he was away). Aaron and Sullivan delight in their new surroundings, spinning the gleaming shower faucet like a top. Yet when Mrs. Kurlander arrives at the apartment, Aaron looks on apathetically as his father and brother embrace her. Soon, Mr. Kurlander walks over to him and asks gently, “Don’t you want to say hello to your mother?” His tone is not scolding but strangely understanding: he seems to realize that a parental bond has been broken following months of poverty, hunger, and loneliness. Aaron trudges in, but the camera stays behind, as if Soderbergh refuses to brook what amounts to a bogus family reunion.
Because of such tough-minded scenes, King of the Hill at times seems like Mouchette transplanted to the prairie: this is, after all, a film in which a boy attends his eighth-grade graduation ceremony unaccompanied by kith or kin. Reflecting on the film in a 2001 interview with Film Comment, Soderbergh wondered about several cuts he made late in postproduction—“a series of nice character things about the father and the mother and their relationship,” he said—perhaps worrying that it could have used another tender moment or two.
In fact, the film has plenty, and one of the most tender, astonishingly, comes during the first night without Sullivan. Taking selfish pleasure in having his mother’s undivided attention, Aaron cajoles her into playing a game of True or False? before going to sleep. He tells a wild yarn about stopping by Sportsman’s Park and being tossed a stick of gum by Cardinals’ outfielder Pepper Martin. Even though she knows it is as phony as a three-dollar bill, she indulges him by saying softly, “True.” Her hint of a smile is undone by the sad look in her eyes, revealing an abiding maternal impulse despite the family fissures to come.
Critics who continue to insist that Soderbergh’s films are sharp-witted but not warmhearted would do well to revisit this scene and the film that surrounds it. Twenty years on, King of the Hill disproves that perception as roundly as any film Soderbergh has ever made.