Early in his career Steven Soderbergh already bucked expectations. He followed up his lively, ultra-cool debut sex, lies, and videotape (1989) with a curveball in the morose Kafka (1991), which was perhaps the most accurate visualization of the “Kafkaesque” but was a failure at the box office and among critics. The director’s next film moved him even further from the chic promise of his debut. Initial reactions to King of the Hill (1993), an adaptation of the A.E. Hotchner memoir, confirmed the suspicion that Soderbergh would not be easy to box in. Roger Ebert positively reviewed the film but still found it puzzling, writing that it had “no apparent connection” to its predecessors.

But these early efforts share a long-term interest the director has tracked throughout his career: each features a central character at odds with their surroundings and fundamentally isolated. A period piece about a young boy struggling on his own in St. Louis during the Great Depression, King of the Hillhas a deep understanding of the often fragile bond among family. This was a theme he’d expand upon in The Limey (1999) and even to an extent in the Ocean’s films.

More than just a starting point for the popular and successful work that would follow, King of the Hill stands as perhaps the most heartfelt and emotionally sound of his early career. The film follows the adventures of 14-year-old Aaron (Jesse Bradford), whose mother (Lisa Eichorn) resides in a sanatorium and whose underemployed father (Jeroen Krabbé) leaves for long stretches of time, looking for work while avoiding the responsibilities of parenthood. The precocious Aaron is left to fend for himself, demonstrating a knack for scams. In a sense he resembles a younger version of sex, lies, and videotape protagonist Graham Dalton (James Spader): they’re both exceptional fibbers, but where Dalton claims to be ashamed of his past as a “pathological liar,” Aaron is an eager and unrepentant fabulist, telling classmates that his hero Charles Lindbergh is also a close friend.

Of course, Aaron’s lies are also a defense mechanism. After speaking about Lindbergh, he’s followed by a well-off classmate who names John D. Rockefeller as his hero, citing the wealthy oil tycoon’s charity toward those “poor unfortunates” during these troubled times. As a “poor unfortunate” enduring some truly troubled times, Aaron’s tall tales help shield him from the truth, though we see his harsh reality in full view. Later in the film, an extraordinary split-diopter shot places his anguished face in the same frame as a group of cruel classmates behind him as they ridicule his dirty hand-me-down clothes. One of the film’s greatest insights comes in the acknowledgment of a class consciousness among people who’ve yet to fully enter adolescence, let alone adulthood.

Told from the perspective of a young buy, King of the Hill has an innocent and picturesque look which Soderbergh now looks back on with regret. In an interview that accompanies the recent Criterion Collection edition of the film, the director claims he would have taken a bleaker, grittier approach today, but the child’s-eye view of severe destitution emphasizes Aaron’s spirit and resiliency, crucial components that underline his status as an outcast. Members of his family gradually leave him, and the decrepit apartment they occupy in St. Louis’ Empire Hotel, initially cramped and overrun with furniture, appears achingly empty as they depart.

Soderbergh once claimed that the film is in part about learning that our parents aren’t the ideal humans we imagine them to be. When Aaron’s father finally gains full-time employment, the mood quickly turns from celebratory to devastating as he has to relocate. Speeding away in a soon-to-be-repossessed car, he tells his son, “You’re going to be okay,” but the sentiment is half-hearted. Aaron’s feelings of desertion are thrown in his face when his father is finally able to rent them a decent apartment. When his mother, officially checked out of the sanatorium, arrives with his younger brother, his response is apathetic. “Don’t you want to say hello to your mother?” asks his father, his tone stern but also desperate, realizing their familial bond has been shattered by poverty and loneliness. Aaron reluctantly enters the room, but the camera doesn’t follow, a moment easily read as Soderbergh’s refusal to take part in the phony family reunion.

Hard-hearted moments like these drove the director to later regret removing a series of warm, sympathetic scenes involving the parents, but despite the film’s sobering touches, King of the Hill is full of warmth. Known and often beloved for his exacting style and formal acuity, Soderbergh has made more innovative and aesthetically thrilling films than this, but they don’t share its sumptuous and radiant look, filled with the full-bodied red, brown and yellow colors of an Edward Hopper painting.

Perhaps more than any other Soderbergh film, this is one completely in love with its characters. The Dickensian figures in and around the Empire Hotel are the kind of personalities typically found in Depression Era stories, but here imbued with unique detail and humor. A loutish cop torments local kids, his cartoonish villainy on par with a Disney villain’s lowly henchman; the hotel’s patient elevator operator (Lauryn Hill) politely entertains Aaron’s tall tales and seems to hide a separate film’s worth of experiences behind her still face.

The anecdotal nature of the source material lends to the film’s disjointed narrative. Soderbergh’s wrangling of the story is a skillful balancing act of incidents and ideas; impossibly sad moments bump against relatively happy ones, imparting the notion that neither life nor emotion takes a linear path. It’s precisely this embrace of non-linearity that makes King of the Hill an undeniably Soderbergian film. It proves that from the earliest moments of his career, the director was perfectly willing to divert from every path laid before him.

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