Flashbacks To 93: King of the Hill and Kalifornia

King of the Hill
Between the Palme D’Or winning triumph of his 1989 feature debut sex, lies and videotape and his 1998 mainstream breakthrough in Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh made several more esoteric films that struggled to win over a wide audience. If any of them should have broken through, it was King of the Hill; a 1930s set coming of age film from the memoirs of A.E. Hotchner.

The story is, to begin with, one of small dramas, as young Aaron (Jesse Bradford) is forced to fend for himself as his little brother is sent to live with relatives, his unwell mother (Lisa Eichorn) has to be moved to a sanitarium and his father (Jeroen Krabbé), a salesman, tries to scrape together whatever work he can to keep the family afloat during the depression. After Aaron is left completely on his own, the film begins to turn darker as he is unable to afford much food, and forced to remain in his family’s hotel room, because if he leaves the door will be padlocked and he will be homeless.

What is remarkable about King of the Hill isn’t that it’s anything new – coming of age stories are one of the cornerstones of cinema – it’s how Soderbergh executes everything, putting us in a world that seems perfectly attuned to a 12 year old’s experience and, though there is no framing device or voiceover to make this explicit, an adult’s memory of it. Much of the film has a golden tone to it; a visual signifier of the glow of nostalgia, even for some moments that were difficult. Aaron is a writer, and just from this and other visual touches (the canted angles in moments that are likely bad memories), I can almost hear him putting words on the page as he looks back and appreciates how all of these things contributed to how he grew up.

Soderbergh also, very subtly and very slowly, shifts the visuals as the film goes on. In the very beginning we often see Aaron and his younger brother Sullivan in wide shots, or from high angles, the scale of the buildings and the people around them dwarfing them. This changes as Aaron becomes more comfortable looking after himself, no longer is the world as intimidating place, he’s a part of it rather than made to feel small by it. The glow of the film is also shifted, though much later. As Aaron finds himself unable to leave his room, darkness encroaches more heavily than ever before, giving the impression that these experiences, rather than say the embarrassing moment he’s caught in a lie and flees a rich friend’s party, are the ones he’d truly like to leave behind.

Many coming of age films, even with kids as young as 12, are about relationships, those first attractions that end up making a big impact on us. King of the Hill flirts with this, with neighbour Ella (Amber Benson, now best known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and classmate Christina (Katherine Heigl) both showing an interest in Aaron, but the film isn’t about that. We see that Aaron probably hasn’t quite matured to this level yet and both times he has other motives for taking up the invitations extended by the girls, namely food. In a sweetly sad scene, we see Ella talk Aaron into dancing with her, she’s clearly been waiting for this moment, but all Aaron’s eye can focus on is the hot dogs boiling on the stove behind them. Similarly, when Christina asks him to dance at that party, his mind is on the plate of food he has to leave on his chair and on the dinner she’s asked him to later. In a way, these are funny moments, but they’re also deeply revealing of just how much of a good face Aaron is putting on. He’s hungry, not the way you and I might be between meals, but in that he’s close to malnourished. This obsession with food culminates in another line that walks the funny/sad line perfectly, as Aaron, having eaten the last of 20 bread rolls that were all the food he could afford, cuts a picture of a roast lamb dinner and eats it with a knife and fork, making believe that it’s delicious.

While the adult cast is distinguished and excellent. Krabbé is a standout, his accent alone being allowed to tell his story as an immigrant who has suddenly found that he is struggling. In one especially poignant scene Aaron’s father tells him a story about how he knows that Aaron will be fine on his own, because from the time he was a baby he’s been smart. The cast is simply stacked with great actors, from a 19 year old Adrien Brody to Karen Allen, deploying that smile that could power small country as a teacher who goes along with Aaron’s lie about where his family lives to keep this intelligent boy in her class. However, the film as a whole lands squarely on the shoulders of Jesse Bradford, who turns in one of the great child performances. A good example of this is in the scene I mentioned above, when Aaron’s father tells him goodbye. The story is meant well, but when his dad tells Aaron that he once poured a glass of water over him when he was crying, and after that all he had to do was show him a glass of water and he’d stop crying, we can see Aaron process this on two levels; as his father means it – that he could tell his son was smart – but also that that’s a messed up thing to do to a baby. This subtlety, this shading, marks Bradford’s performance throughout, making us identify closely with Aaron and letting us inside his experiences and his feelings.

I don’t know, 25 years on, how King of the Hill is viewed within Soderbergh’s cannon, but for me – who finds him frustratingly hit and miss – this is not only probably his best film, but one of the better American coming of age films of the 90s, if you’ve not seen it I suggest you correct that oversight immediately.

Ask me on any given day what my favourite film of all is and you’ll get one of two answers, one of which is Terence Malick’s debut, Badlands (1973). Badlands is loosely based on the story of Carl Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, and tells the story of Kit (Martin Sheen) and his much younger girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek), who go on the run together after Kit kills Holly’s father when he tries to stop them seeing each other. Over the years, many films have riffed on Badlands and on the Starkweather and Fugate story, and I confess that given the esteem I hold Malick’s film in, those films tend to face a bit of an uphill battle with me.

Kalifornia is a film that, in structure, takes loose inspiration from Badlands, but which sometimes leans heavily into that debt as it goes on. Here we have two couples. Brian (David Duchovny) and Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are working on a book about serial killers (he’s writing it, she’s taking the pictures), Early (Brad Pitt) is recently out of prison and living in a trailer with his girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis). The four end up on a road trip together when Early and Adele answer an ad to share driving and costs on Brian and Carrie’s tour of famous murder sites, which will eventually deliver them all to California. What Brian doesn’t know is that Early is just the kind of person he’s writing about.

Kalifornia is, I suspect, a film that would have looked very different had it been made for release in 1994, in by then it would have had time to be influenced by next week’s film, which would help cement a young writer who used to work in a video shop as THE cool voice of the 90s. Instead, what we get is part Badlands, part yuppie home invasion thriller (a distinctly early 90s genre) on wheels. I can see how this could work but unfortunately, despite some undoubted qualities, it doesn’t come off. The ambition is there. Writer Tim Metcalfe has had an odd career, he started with a story credit on Revenge of the Nerds and most recently wrote The Haunting in Connecticut and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground. This screenplay presents two views of psychosis. A pretentiously self-serious voiceover from Brian seems to mock his high minded approach to the psychology of serial killers, while the depiction of Early speaks more to an interest in the terror of the inexplicable nature, and ultimately the banality, of serial murderers.

The writing isn’t bad, but it’s marred by the fact that Brian is something of a blank canvas. This is perhaps not entirely Metcalfe’s fault, because David Duchovny plays him sleepily. It makes some sense for the first half of the film, during which Brian is ignoring what should be warning signs about Early, but Duchovny’s work never finds a second gear, which is a problem for the section in which we’re meant to see him being drawn in by Early and for the film’s climax. Michelle Forbes is better, finding a balance between acidic in her attitude to Early and Brian’s choice of ride share couple and a somewhat sympathetic concern as she learns more about Adele. There is a similar balance with the other couple. If Duchovny underplays then Brad Pitt often needed director Dominic Sena to rein him in. Early could be a chilling character; a psychopath who gives no indication of why he kills, but Pitt plays him as such a caricature of a redneck that it’s tough to find him credible enough to be intimidated by him. By far the best performance in the film comes from Juliette Lewis as Adele. Adele is the only character who seems to have an inner life, without having to say much of it out loud, Lewis gives us a sense of a woman who has been kept in a childlike state by all the men in her life and the abuse she’s suffered. The way she names her cactuses, the little laugh she has after almost every thought she verbalises, the way she always looks for a bright side, all these things ring true of someone who is used to being treated with so little regard that she can rationalise away Early beating her. It’s a heartbreaking gem of a performance in the middle of a movie that never quite deserves it, it’s also the reason that Kalifornia can’t be entirely dismissed.

In the third act, Kalifornia acknowledges its debt to Badlands by essentially copying the wonderful sequence in which Kit and Holly take refuge in a rich man’s house. For the most part, this sequence is nothing but a pale shadow of that in Malick’s film, but it does also provide the emotional crescendo of Early and Adele’s story, and with it perhaps Lewis’ best scene (“You’re mean Early“). Certainly it’s better than the generic finale that takes Brian out to confront Early in a nuclear testing site in the desert. It’s here that the fact I never felt invested in Brian and Carrie’s relationship hurts the film.

Patchy as much of it is, this is comfortably Dominic Sena’s best film. He does manage a handful of memorable images (the opening sequence, Pitt, covered in mud, digging a huge hole) and draws at least one excellent performance from his cast. His work since has been less distinguished, though at least Whiteout, laughably obvious though its mystery was, managed a couple of suspenseful sequences. Sadly, the best known image Sena has created is in Swordfish, likely the most gratuitous topless scene in history, for which Halle Berry got a huge bonus on her cheque.

Kalifornia doesn’t have the insight into its subject to be an essential serial killer film, it doesn’t have the performances to be a great thriller, but what it does have is one performance that manages to elevate it beyond a mediocre script and direction, and that’s probably just enough to recommend giving it another look.

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