Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review – King of the Hill

March 31, 2008

King of the Hill – U.S., 1993

In any other time, a father leaving his twelve-year-old child alone to fend for himself at a hotel whose owners yearn to toss everyone experiencing financial hardship out would be chastised and vilified. However, the Great Depression is not just any other time. It is a time when sacrifices must be made if a family is going to have any chance at a future. Purchases of new clothes have to be put off, bills must be left unpaid, and yes, families may have to be separated. That’s the reality of the situation; it is neither right nor wrong.

Based on A.E. Hotchner’s memoirs, Steven Soderbergh’s third feature film King of the Hill tells the story of Aaron Kurlander, an eighth grader gifted at writing and possessing a maturity beyond his years, perhaps brought on by the many hardships that he has had to face in his young life. As the film begins, the Kurlanders have already lost whatever housing they had prior to the Depression and are living on the third floor of a hotel. In the rooms around them are residents equally down on their luck, and as the movie progresses, their rooms become increasingly vacant. Mr. Kurlander still possesses an air of importance and self-confidence, a necessity if one is not going to give in to the desperation around him. He speaks as if a job offer is just around the corner and imagines that his words carry the power to delay others’ removal from the hotel. They don’t; in reality, he sells a product that no one wants to buy and is deeply in debt due to the hotel bill. Furthermore, his wife’s health is chronically poor. It is easy to understand that this is a family with a serious financial problem. And so, tough decisions are made. The first is to send their youngest Sullivan to live with his uncle. The second is to accept a job selling watches in another city. The latter decision is especially harsh because it means leaving Aaron to fend for himself, which will become increasingly difficult with each passing day.

King of the Hill is many films at once. It is first a coming-of-age story, detailing how a child learns to deal with adversity and hardship in trying times. It is also an historical film, showing the economic plight of people during a particularly cruel time in history. We see desperate families living in camps along the side of a road, families losing all that they own because of their inability to pay their hotel bills, and agents waiting to repossess many people’s only means to make a living – their automobiles. Finally, King of the Hill is a film about morals and the decisions that good people make during arduous times. Under normal circumstances, it is doubtful that Aaron would steal food from his classmate or lies about what his parents do for a living, but during the Depression, moral absolutes are not easy to adhere to.

Helping to make King of the Hill especially memorable are the film’s supporting characters. Particularly effective is Ella, a young girl who at first seems eccentric to Aaron, as she appears to never leave her room. The reason for that will affect Aaron immensely. Equally interesting is Lester, skillfully played by Adrian Brody. Lester takes it upon himself to take care of Aaron, helping his attain the proper clothing for his graduation, as well as trying to find ways for him to make money. At Aaron’s graduation, it is Lester, not Aaron’s parents, who is present to applaud his when his name is called.

Only twice does King of the Hill hit false notes. In one scene, Aaron has to move his father’s car so that it is not repossessed. However, his feet cannot reach the pedals. This leads to a predictable scene in which a car runs perilously down a number of busy streets but avoids all hazards. The second involves Patrolman Burns and some watermelon. However, these two scenes are minor points in an otherwise powerful and honest film. King of the Hill avoids unnecessary sentiment by making its characters imperfect. Mr. Kurlander is a perfect example of this, and the scene in which he explains why he believes his son is “a smart boy” is chilling for what it tells about him and the environment in which Aaron and his brother have grown up. However, it also explains why Aaron has acquired the strength and ability to persevere. It was a matter of necessity. (on DVD in Region 2 and 3)

4 stars

*King of the Hill was released by Universal Pictures outside of North America. The disc contains no special features or commentaries. It currently does not have a release date in the United States.

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