KING OF THE HILL (El Rey de la Montaña) Review
[In honor of the fact that a) I absolutely adore this film b) it released on DVD today and c) I am quoted front and center on the DVD cover, I hereby reprint this review of Gonazlo Lopez Gallego's King of the Hill, originally written when the film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007 and just as true now.]
A sly, deceptive gut punch of a picture Gonzalo López-Gallego's King of the Hill is a brilliant, vicious little piece of work. It is a fierce piece of social commentary, the sort of picture that could never be made in North America but, by god, does it need to be. López-Gallego gives you just enough of what you expect, just enough of the familiar, to lull you into a sense of complacency. He lets you think you know what's coming next and then, suddenly and shockingly, it all turns in on itself and becomes something entirely other, entirely more. It is the sort of film that is incredibly difficult to talk about without spoiling the punch but believe this: people will talk. And they will do so for all the right reasons.
Quim is an entirely nondescript man in his mid thirties, driving through the remote and mountainous Spanish countryside hoping to track down and reclaim the former girlfriend who left him and moved away. A frustrating phone call at a roadside gas station introduces Quim to Bea, a beautiful young woman who he spots shoplifting from the station shop. Perhaps frustrated from the phone call, perhaps just enjoying the exoticness of it, Quim and Bea engage in a quick sexual tryst in the washroom, Quim realizing too late that Bea is as quick with her fingers as with her kisses and that she took his wallet as she removed his pants.
His bad day having just gotten so much worse, Quim spots Bea's car in the distance and gives chase - a bad choice on these winding country roads. Soon she is out of site and Quim is lost and roaming aimlessly hoping to find his way back to something that he recognizes. No such luck. What he gets instead is a bullet in his engine block, an unseen attacker opening fire on him with a high powered rifle from a distant ridge.
So the film begins and in the early going there is no reason to believe that there is anything here that we haven't seen many times over, and frequently done better. The leads are likeable enough, if somewhat under developed. The premise works well and López-Gallego knows how to work the tension, is smart enough to quickly reintroduce his antagonistic protagonists to one another and to bring in a few extra bodies as fodder for the unseen gunmen. He is strong behind the camera, takes good advantage of his surroundings and is generally competent on all fronts.
But really, through the first act that is all this film is. Just competent. Why are we supposed to care about these people? Why should any of this matter? Just as these questions begin to surface, just as the audience begins to squirm a little bit, López-Gallego yanks the carpet out and suddenly all the rules change. Most if not all of your preconceptions still stand, he hasn't played a bait and switch, but suddenly the film becomes so much more. It is bold, it is shocking, and the ease with which he pulls off the transition is absolutely astounding. It is also very important that you come into that moment without any preconceptions and so I will not say anything more specific about it.
King of the Hill is, without a doubt, an important film. It also will very likely become a notorious one in very short order. It is powerful stuff that cannot help but provoke a reaction and it comes with my absolute highest recommendation.