Aaron Kurlander, the boy protagonist of Steven Soderbergh’s heart-stirring new movie, “King of the Hill” (AMC Century 14), is the plucky, all-around kid many of us would like to have been: precocious writer, academic star, dead-eye marble champ, devoted son and brother, dauntless neighborhood explorer. He’s a mensch of 12, king of his shining little hill.
A hill about to fall.
As Soderbergh brilliantly re-creates Aaron’s world--the events of writer A.E. Hotchner’s autobiographical 1972 novel--we see everything more clearly. His hotel, the Avalon, is a deteriorating fleabag in 1933 St. Louis, taken over by the bank and slowly being converted into a bordello with dance hall annex. As tenants fall in arrears, they’re locked out by a sadistic bellhop (Joseph Chrest).
Aaron’s father (Jeroen Krabbe) is a glib, threadbare huckster peddling unsellable glass candles, months behind in the rent and one step ahead of the car repossessors. His mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is fragile and work-worn, hospitalized with consumption. His younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) has been farmed out to relatives.
His neighbors are a gallery of alcoholic lawyers, lovelorn epileptics and indigents. His one hero, Lester (Adrien Brody), is an endlessly resourceful Jewish 15-year-old down the hall with a magical pocket knife and lots of angles. Aaron is a great prevaricator--endlessly fibbing on his background to his snob classmates--but his lies are a battered screen. As he’s abandoned in the Avalon, life and the bellhop close ruthlessly in.
Or do they? “King of the Hill” is one of the finest American films of the year--and one of the few which is really about America. It’s a story--at once humorous, heartening and harrowing--of a world going nightmarishly haywire. The setting and time explain this: the Great Depression, with the nation in the grip of a remorseless economic juggernaut, hobo jungles and “Hoovervilles” swallowing up the victims. Is it paradoxical that this summer of hardship brings out the best in some--or the worst in others--and that this reminiscence of terrible times takes on a honeyed, shimmering, nostalgic glow?
Soderbergh, famous for his Cannes Grand Prize-winning low-budget debut, “sex, lies, and videotape,”, alienated some critics with his artsy film noir follow-up, “Kafka.” But, here, he’s in command; working with another man’s memories, he makes them resonate.
Hotchner’s book was lightly sarcastic, deceptively stoic and flip. It was written as if by a youngster--supposedly 13-year-old Aaron a summer later--and, fittingly for a tale by one of Ernest Hemingway’s cameradoes , the pathos was husked over with “toughness.” Soderbergh’s storytelling has more overt sensitivity. And the images he gets, working with Alan Rudolph’s cinematographer Elliot Davis, are huge, luminous and summery-ripe. It’s a visual style, like “Barton Fink’s,” reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s, full of uneasy subjective shots, grotesque aestheticism, a fascination with innocence ravaged.
It’s probably Aaron’s innocence that is his link with the alienated voyeur-protagonists of Soderbergh’s last two movies. What this movie evokes is not so much the “reality” of the crumbling Avalon, or even Aaron’s viewpoint, but a kind of universal “innocent eye,” alive to the world’s terrors, yet endowing them with a magical sheen.
Jesse Bradford, the young actor who plays Aaron, is refreshingly bright and alert, with just the resilience Hotchner described. Around him, the rest of the cast--everyone above, plus Spalding Gray as cross-hall neighbor Mr. Mungo, Amber Benson as epileptic Ella McShane, Karen Allen as a teacher and Lauryn Hill as Arletta the elevator girl--make a precise, joyously rich gallery.
But, more than anything else, it’s the attitude of “King of the Hill” that makes it special: its mingled apprehension and delight. In some ways, the story resembles the blockbuster “Home Alone"--also about a child abandoned, locked in and beset by terrors--but “King of the Hill” makes that situation more real and dreamlike, its terrors undismissible.
Soderbergh doesn’t include the flashback that explains Hotchner’s title: a grisly anecdote in which Aaron and his friends play “king of the hill” on a rainy day and get trapped in mud slides so severe that two of them are buried and one killed. The movie reflects a gentler vision than the novel, but tenderness and compassion aren’t always in abundance; we should treasure them when we find them.
Because, like anything else, they vanish. Like all the small or “foolish” things that make life precious to Aaron--his collection of cigar bands, his glassies, canaries, Lester’s knife, the magazine pictures of roasts and cakes that he cuts out and eats when he’s starving--"King of the Hill” gains its meaning by the love it endows upon its images and words. This beautiful, limber, surprising movie has the glow of great sadness recalled and triumphed over. In its small world, on its dangerous unsteady hill, it wears the crown.
‘King of the Hill’
Jesse Bradford: Aaron Kurlander
Jeroen Krabbe: Mr. Kurlander
Lisa Eichhorn: Mrs. Kurlander
Spalding Gray: Mr. Mungo
A Gramercy Pictures presentation of a Wildwood/Bona Fide production. Director/screenplay/editor Steven Soderbergh. Producers Barbara Maltby, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. Executive producer John Hardy. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Costumes Susan Lyall. Music Cliff Martinez. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art director Bill Rea. Set decorator Claire Bowin. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (for thematic elements).