Blu-ray review: “King of the Hill: The Criterion Collection”

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When film lovers made lists of the movies that they wanted to see on DVD but were been released, Steven Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill” was often near the top of the list. Only available on VHS since its release in 1993, Soderbergh’s affecting and lovely third film is finally out this week, and worth the wait, on an extras-packed DVD/Blu-ray combo package from the Criterion Collection.

Among the special features on the disc is Soderbergh’s fourth film, the noir “The Underneath,” which he pans unsentimentally in an accompanying interview. While we can argue with Soderbergh over the merits of “The Underneath” (I happen to like it) there’s no argument when Soderbergh offers much milder criticisms of “King of the Hill” in another interview. He’s just wrong.

Based on the memoir by A.E. Hotchner, “King of the Hill” is a Depression-era tale that eloquently mixes boys’-life adventure with the crushing realities of life on the economic margins. Jesse Bradford plays Aaron, an eminently resourceful boy living with his brother and parents in a fading motel. His father (Jeroen Krabbe) is an underachieving door-to-door salesman whose misguided optimism is oppressive, as he always insists good things are just around the corner.

As if a nightmare, one by one, Aaron’s family disappears. His brother is sent away to live relatives because his parents can’t afford to feed them. His mother grows sick and has to go to a sanitarium. And his father gets a good job — in a different state. Suddenly, Aaron is on his own, forced to live by his wits.

“King of the Hill” walks a fine line — on the one hand, it’s heartbreaking to watch a young boy in such peril, living off stale dinner rolls and trying to stay a step ahead of a sadistic cop or a villainous bellboy just looking for a rationale to put Aaron out on the street. But it’s also exhilarating, because Aaron is so clever and likable, able to think on his feet in a world of adults. The one thing he can’t stand is pity — when he discovers that a special award he gets at school is a sympathy honor given to the school’s poorest child, he slips out of the graduation party thrown in his honor, humiliated.

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Bradford, who would grow up to become an actor in films like “Flags of Our Fathers” and TV shows like “Guys With Kids,” is an amazing child actor, exuding such confidence and capability that it’s easy to forget Aaron is just a kid. The film also includes an array of fine supporting work from the characters Aaron meets and befriends, including Spalding Gray as the mysterious neighbor across the hall, Adrien Brody as a street tough who acts as a big-brother figure, and Lauryn Hill and Katherine Heigl in early roles as girls that Aaron meets.

The film seems to glow with an unearthly luster, and Soderbergh’s main complaint in his DVD interview is that the film is “too beautiful,” and he’d remake it as simpler and tougher now. But that glow is the glow of Hotchner’s memory; the genius of “King of the Hill” shows how any childhood, no matter how hard, can be sculpted by time and memory into a lustrous thing.

The extras on the Criterion edition include the Soderbergh interviews, a few deleted scenes, and a charming interview with the nonagerian Hotchner. There’s also a short film dissecting a dream sequence Aaron has late in the film, and how it’s the first time Soderbergh breaks with linear narrative, paving the way for his more radical experiments with chronology and narrative to come.

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