Until his recent quasi-retirement, Steven Soderbergh was the most prolific major American director, outpacing even Woody Allen and Spike Lee. He made 26 features in 24 years, virtually all of them worthwhile; even Full Frontal and The Good German have their defenders. Of those 26, however, Soderbergh wrote only five, almost exclusively at the beginning of his career. Screenwriting wasn’t something he enjoyed, so as soon as he had enough clout to leave it behind, he did so, often noting in interviews that he wasn’t very good at it. He’s dead wrong about that, though, and it’s finally possible to see the best evidence to the contrary. His third film, King Of The Hill, which was never available on DVD before this month’s Criterion release, boasts one of the most expertly crafted screenplays of the ’90s, and serves as a bittersweet reminder of what was lost when Soderbergh (who now writes first-rate criticism on his website) permanently closed Final Draft.
Based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner, King Of The Hill takes place during the Great Depression, chronicling the adventures in poverty of a resourceful 14-year-old boy named Aaron (Jesse Bradford). Early on, Aaron’s younger brother, Sullivan (Cameron Boyd), is sent to live with relatives, because the family can no longer afford to feed him. His mother (Lisa Eichhorn) then winds up in a sanatorium, battling tuberculosis, while his perpetually underemployed father (Jeroen Krabbé) finds work as a traveling watch salesman in another part of the country, leaving Aaron to fend entirely for himself. (A meal plan set up for him at a nearby diner is rendered kaput when the employee in question gets fired.) Subsisting on a cache of dinner rolls, while attempting to earn some money breeding canaries, Aaron also has to constantly dodge the vindictive bellhop (Joseph Chrest) at the cheap hotel where the family resides, as they’re months behind with the rent. Prostitution, suicide, and other matters too heady for a kid barely in his teens rear their ugly heads as well. All in all, it’s not the most carefree childhood ever depicted.
Interviewed in the Criterion set’s supplements, Soderbergh expresses regret that he made the film look so picturesque, saying that he’d take an entirely different aesthetic approach to the material today. It’s a fair point, but Aaron’s circumstances are bleak enough that grim realism might have been overkill. Like John Boorman’s terrific WWII saga Hope And Glory, King Of The Hill employs a child’s-eye view of hardship in a way that emphasizes youth’s endless resilience and adaptability; rather than a miserabilist slog, it’s a picture that recognizes that, even when handed big challenges, a 14-year-old is a 14-year-old. Bradford, who’s virtually never offscreen, gives a remarkably relaxed and beautifully watchful performance that avoids easy sentiment at every turn, and he’s matched by a superb supporting cast that includes Spalding Gray (as a neighbor at the hotel), Karen Allen (as Aaron’s empathetic teacher), and the young Adrien Brody, in one of his first roles, as Lester, Aaron’s wisecracking, larcenous mentor.
What King Of The Hill notably lacks is a streamlined narrative. Like most memoirs, Hotchner’s is essentially anecdotal, and in lesser hands the movie could easily have felt random and discursive, with just one isolated incident after another. Soderbergh’s adaptation engineers a superb balancing act among the disparate threads of Aaron’s story, expertly creating the illusion of order from what’s actually a lot of scattered chaos. Lighthearted moments (like Aaron’s constant preference for free food over the attentions of the girls he knows, one of whom is played by a teenage Katherine Heigl) abut scenes designed to tear your heart out (most notably a parting “buck up lil’ camper” reminiscence from Aaron’s dad that any rational person, especially Aaron, would register as uniquely horrifying). It’s all perfectly judged, and while King Of The Hill certainly confirmed Soderbergh as a first-rate director (after the disappointment of Kafka, though that film looks fantastic), its virtues are deeply rooted in the DNA of its screenplay. Not that he’s done badly for himself as an auteur-for-hire by any means. But he’s denied viewers a significant percentage of his creative gifts, and the alternative universe in which he didn’t do that must be very interesting indeed.