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King Of The Hill
cast: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Maria Valverde, Thomas Riordan, Pablo Menasanch, Andres Juste

director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

84 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Optimum World DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Frequently, talk about different genre categorisation is dominated by the desire to make sense of the works that refuse to fit into one compartment or another. Is Twilight (2008) a work of horror or romance? Is Star Wars (1977) a work of science fiction or fantasy? You can ask these kinds of questions of almost any film, and people frequently do. One of the results of this obsession with category disputes is that genre boundaries are often seen as things that are there to be transgressed, challenged or deconstructed. But this is to ignore the real purpose of genre categories: expectation management.

In many ways, making a film is like running a restaurant. When a chef opens a restaurant he does not approach his ingredients as though they were a completely blank slate. Instead, he knows that if he combines tinned tomatoes, pasta and beef mince in the right way then he will produce spaghetti bolognese, a popular dish that people will want to eat. Similarly, when filmmakers get together to make a film they do not necessarily approach the subject matter from a new angle. Instead they borrow from other films or deploy techniques they might have learned at film school, and they combine certain elements and produce a work of genre. A work that they know can be marketed in a certain way and for which there is a receptive audience. It is an adventurous chef who looks at minced beef, tinned tomatoes and pasta, and decides to make a pudding or who attempts to reconstruct spaghetti bolognese using an entirely different set of ingredients. Indeed, if you want to know what a horror film looks like when it is constructed from all new ingredients then look no further than something like Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009).

Gonzalo López-Gallego's King Of The Hill (aka: El rey de la montaña) is a solid piece of genre filmmaking: it is well directed, it is atmospheric, it has the bare bones of a wider point to make and it is entertaining to watch. It is everything you would expect from a thriller and exactly nothing more.

The film opens with Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) driving through an almost deserted rural Spain. Stopping off at a petrol station, he encounters an attractive and yet mysterious young girl named Bea (Maria Valverde). The two 'hit it off' immediately. When Bea unexpectedly disappears, Quim becomes convinced that she has stolen his wallet and he sets off after her, managing only to get himself lost in what appears to be some kind of national park. Suddenly, as Quim is driving along, a shot rings out from the tree-line and the car lurches to the side. Someone is shooting at him! Terrified and confused, Quim runs again into Bea and, despite tensions and recriminations, the pair are forced to work together in order to survive.

Visually, King Of The Hill is undeniably sumptuous. Set in a vast autumnal forest, every shot is infused not only with spectacular colours but also the kind of lighting that would have cost an absolute fortune had mother nature not provided it for free. However, as we saw with Patrik Syversen's Norwegian slasher Manhunt, even a spectacular backdrop can result in a disappointing film if the director is not up to the task. Thankfully, López-Gallego is more than a match for his subject matter as he directs with a genuine sense of energy and style, demonstrating not only an admirable control over the film's pacing and but also the capacity for creating genuine moments of tension such as a spectacular scene in which the killers attack a police car while the protagonists cower in the back seat.

Thematically, King of the Hill is somewhere between John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), and James Watkins' Eden Lake as we are very much in the territory of the survival horror-thriller, with sympathetic outsiders running around a forest trying to survive a brutal attack at the hands of demented locals. However, where Eden Lake was about class warfare and the impact of unwanted children upon a largely childfree lifestyle, King Of The Hill designates video games as the casus belli of its cinematic confrontation.

For most of the film, the director keeps his locals hidden from the audience. We see the odd shadow, the odd long-distance shot and we certainly hear them but we are never shown them or given any insights into their motivation. Then, in the third act, the film switches to the viewpoint of the locals and reveals them to be local children. Between the talk of 'frags' and the occasional use of the same video game emulating gun-camera techniques used in Andrzej Bartkowiak's Doom, we work out that the kids are playing a game: the person with the most kills wins. When one of the kids is killed, one of the others simply crosses out his name and announces that "he lost." As a theme, this suffers from three problems.

Firstly, between Eden Lake, Them, and Orphan, the idea of sociopathic children is not as fresh or as interesting as it once was. In fact, it is rapidly approaching the point at which it becomes a cliché, a piece of received and unchallenged cinematic wisdom in desperate need of revision and deconstruction. Indeed, with talk of supposedly feral children filling tabloid newspapers, King of the Hill's big revelation comes as no surprise at all. If anything, it feels slightly reactionary.

Secondly, King Of The Hill's attack on video games is lazy and lacking in insight. The juxtaposition of real-life murders and gaming motifs suggests cause and effect but Javier Gullón's script lacks the heft to make the link seem like anything more than a gratuitous and hypocritical attack by one violent art form against another.

Thirdly, Gullón's script is rather Spartan as a whole. Initially, this gives the film a rather pleasing no-frills feel and both Sbaraglia and Valverde have the requisite levels of charisma to carry the film despite furiously under-written parts. However, when the point of view shift takes place and the script has to not only tell us about two new characters and explain why they're doing what they're doing, the awkwardness of the exposition and the lack of psychological depth become immediately apparent.

All things considered, King Of The Hill is not a bad film. It is nice to look at, it is well paced and it has enough tension and excitement to make it a robustly enjoyable way to spend just under an hour and a half. However, while I will certainly be keeping an eye out for Gonzalo López-Gallego's other films; I will not be rushing out to buy anything written by Javier Gullón. I admire the desire to make a film with something to say but King Of The Hill really is a demonstration of why it is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

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