Movie Review
The United States of Leland


2003

Director: Matthew Ryan Hoge
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Jena Malone, Don Cheadle
B-


he United States of Leland is, among other things, a story about a troubled adolescent and the aspiring writer/juvie teacher who sees in his student an opportunity for an intriguing book. In perhaps the most literal interpretation ever of the writing adage, “Write what you know,” first time writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge is a former teacher at a juvenile hall who found in his students an interesting subject for his work. The good news is that he was correct about the concept being solid. The bad news is that his execution leaves something to be desired.

Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) is an odd sort of young man. He speaks in short bursts of apathetic, matter-of-fact phrases and wears a strange expression on his emotionless mug (think Karl from Sling Blade if he were about 30 years younger, not retarded, and had a normal voice). One summer day, Leland up and decides to stab a young, mentally challenged boy to death, and the rest of the film deals with his psychological state and the fallout from his actions.

After a grainy and dream-like shot of the murder scene, the audience is treated to a precious minute or so of Kim Deal’s great “Gigantic.” Then we see 16-year old Becky Pollard (Jena Malone, looking the exact same age as she has for going on five years now, for god’s sake; does she sleep in a refrigerator or some shit?) shooting heroin in her suburban bedroom. Becky is the first of many peripheral characters who exist in the story primarily in order to interact with Leland, but suffer from over-simplicity and generally waste the audience’s time. Outside of Leland himself and the teacher, Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), most of the characters can be summed up far too well with just two words: troubled girl, mopey girl, pained boy, retarded boy, bereaved father, stunned mother, confused mother, asshole father. There we have Hoge’s biggest misstep--eight characters who are utterly depthless eating considerable amounts of the film’s run time.

Where The United States of Leland succeeds is in the conversations between Pearl and Leland. Thankfully, much of the story is told through flashbacks with narration from Leland, as though the audience was given a window into Pearl’s mind’s eye during those aforementioned discussions. Gosling does an adequate job exposing Leland’s thought processes and emotional state and Hoge is moderately successful in presenting provocative debates of good and evil, sadness, and human nature. At their best, the character of Leland and his talks with Pearl can be stirring in some respect, kindling introspection and consideration of one’s outlook on life. At their worst, Pearl and Leland (alternately) sound like your local high school burnouts talking about “deep things.”

In contrast to the cerebral world of Pearl and Leland’s meeting room is the visceral hysteria surrounding the victim’s family. Becky, who happens to be the older sister of Ryan (the dead kid), goes overboard with the H and moves in with a junkie-ex. Dad plans to shoot Leland as he walks into the courthouse for his arraignment. Allen (Chris Klein), a surrogate family member and boyfriend to “mopey girl”, attempts to be the family rock but loses control in an extremely contrived fashion.

The film is fairly action-free, and much of the time one waits for anything to happen. However, when important events finally do occur, they either further establish the unidimensional nature of the characters or simply move the plot along to its clumsy ending. Hoge seems to have recognized the dilemma of his movie becoming interesting but too talky and attempted to fix that with the inclusion of action, but in doing so fails to consistently retain the same level of intellectual appeal or make the film more entertaining.

In its essence, The United States of Leland is a mediocre film, but because it has that rare power to make one think, its overall cinematic quality is less relevant. A movie that leaves its viewer dazed and contemplative surpasses the sum of its acting, directing, and writing. And in doing so, The United States of Leland moves into the category of worthwhile.


By: Kevin Worrall
2004-04-16


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