Steven Soderbergh's long-neglected coming-of-age picture King of the Hill has just made a triumphant return. Since its inauspicious 1993 release, the auteur's third film has been largely out of commission, aired sporadically on cable but was only available for purchase on domestic home video in a pan-and-scan VHS release and a letterboxed laserdisc, going over twenty years without a domestic DVD release (the U.K. got a region-B DVD release in 2007). According to IMDb, the film at last received an HD transfer for cable airings in 2008, followed by illegal (YouTube in 2010) and legal (Netflix in 2012) internet streaming, but now it's finally available in high-definition widescreen on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Given that track record, the uninitiated might expect the film to be some kind of massive misfire, but the opposite is true, which has made the film's absence as baffling, if not as distressing, as the separation anxiety that forms the story's emotional core. King of the Hill derives from A.E. Hotchner's memoir of the same name, an account of growing up hand-to-mouth during the Great Depression. In 1933 St. Louis, twelve-year-old Aaron Kurlander (a precocious Jesse Bradford) has a penchant for whoppers that—as in so many authorial memoirs—prefigures a life as a writer. The predilection also helps Aaron, flying by the seat of his short pants, to maintain a façade of middle-class respectability despite his family's dire straits as near-squatters in the dumpy Empire Hotel. His tchotchke-salesman father (Jeroen Krabbé) has reached a point of despair in supporting Aaron's tubercular mother (Lisa Eichorn) and little brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd), prompting Mr. Kurlander to send the younger boy away to live with an uncle.
Gradually, Aaron's literal and figurative family members (in the latter category, count Karen Allen's maternally sympathetic eighth grade teacher and Adrien Brody's big-brotherly scammer) drift out of place, ultimately leaving grade-school graduate Aaron alone in his hotel room, fiercely holding his ground in hopes of a timely salvation. During these darkest hours, even across-the-hall neighbor Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) gives up the ghost, and Oedipal strains surface in a hunger-fueled hallucination, Aaron's psychic abyss, these more or less qualifying as rites of passage: taking his first tentative sexual baby steps (with Amber Benson's touchingly smitten, epileptic neighbor girl Ella, who Aaron feverishly conflates with his sick mother) and slaying the idealized image of his father by proving capable enough to supplant him.
King of the Hill also proves visually inviting. Though Soderbergh now considers the film too pretty (due to Gary Frutkoff's rather astonishingly expert production design and a beautifully realized, Hopperesque palette), the film's reflective, glistening surfaces disconcertingly tell the tale not only of life in sweltering St. Louis but of Aaron's sticky, sweaty pubescence, reinforcing his dire straits and adolescent fumbling (it's also impossible not to associate the Empire's sheen with the similarly perspirant 1940s hotel in the Coen Brothers' 1991 film Barton Fink). Above all, to revisit King of the Hill—or to discover it—is to realize how seldom American cinema deems it worthwhile to tell a child's story with anything approaching serious psychological intent. Soderbergh does so to a fare-thee-well, while also poignantly exploring the wrongful shame of economic insecurity.
As the above review makes clear, Criterion's three-disc Dual-Format Edition (Blu-ray and DVD) of King of the Hill is both the definitive home-video release (by a country mile) and a gift to cinephiles. As supervised by director Steven Soderbergh, the transfer is a certifiable beaut, with rich color and generous texture. Contrast is perfect and detail revelatory; fans of the film are going to do cartwheels over this vivid hi-def image. Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, supervised by sound editor and rerecording mixer Larry Blake, ideally renders the source audio, with crystal clarity to the dialogue, sensitive rendering of ambience, and full-bodied music (including source tunes like the film-opening "Hold That Tiger," a detail transferred from Hotchner's book).
Terrific interviews with "Steven Soderbergh" (19:25, HD) and "A. E. Hotchner" (21:10, HD) accompany the film. Soderbergh discusses his approach to the material, its positive reception among his fans (though not so much at Cannes), and a handful of regrets about the film's visual look and editing. Hotchner, sharp as a tack at 93, recalls his early life and how he fashioned it into his memoirs, though only briefly touches on his brush with Soderbergh.
"Against Tyranny" is a nifty new video essay by ::kogonada that dissects the hallucination sequence and other shots as an entree to analyzing Soderbergh’s technique and, specifically, his preference for non-linear narrative.
The "Trailer" (2:31, HD) and six "Deleted Scenes" (8:47, HD) are also here, and especially relevant given that Soderbergh has expressed regret about cutting much of this footage.
The real jawdropper here is the inclusion of Soderbergh's also-underappreciated 1995 feature follow-up to King of the Hill: The Underneath (1:39:11, HD), complete with an Underneath-themed interview of Soderbergh (22:33, HD). It's deserving of its own separate release, so to get it here as a bonus makes a purchase of this set even more of a no-brainer value.
Lastly, there's a lovely booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh, and an excerpt from Hotchner’s 1972 memoir.
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