THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND
Review by Gordon Justesen
Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin, Kevin Spacey,
Michelle Williams, Martin Donovan
Director: Matthew Ryan Hoge
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004
want a why. Well, maybe there isn't one. Maybe…Maybe this is just something
United States of Leland is
one of the most complex and haunting character studies I've ever come across.
This is a film whose story goes in many directions, and while all the different
areas may not be considered connected, the film as a whole still remains a
wholly effective piece. Credit writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge for being able
to execute such a challenge, in addition to assembling a marvelous ensemble
The story focuses
on a murder that rocks a small quiet American town, in more ways than one. The
culprit is a young man named Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling). What follows
is an exploration into Leland's life, both before and after the murder, and the
effect it has not only on him, but on others connected somehow with both Leland
and the murder victim.
What makes Leland's
crime so shocking are a few elements. First, the person he killed was an
autistic boy, whom was stabbed repeatedly. Secondly, Leland happens to be the
son of famous novel writer Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), which would attract
the media in a heartbeat. Lastly, there is the mystery of why Leland, who
appears as a gentle soul incapable of harming anything, would commit such an
As Leland is
currently serving time at juvenile detention center, he captures the attention
of his history teacher, Pearl (Don Cheadle). Having been struck by Leland's
intellectual side, as well as a few of his own personal journal entries, he
tries to connect with the young man whom he can't believe was capable of such a
heinous act. As it turns out, Pearl is also a writer, and with all the attention
the crime has got due to who Leland's father is, it's questionable if Pearl
really wants to connect with Leland, or is it all just to get a book deal.
As Pearl does his
best to get Leland to open up about the events leading up to the present, we
then see certain past events unfold. We learn that Leland, in addition to
feeling quite alienated from his separated parents, was involved in a relationship with Becky Pollard (Jena
Malone). Despite her consistent fling with drug addiction, Becky loved Leland
Becky happens to be
sister to the murder victim. We are also shown the effect the murder had on the
rest of the family, including the victim's parents (Martin Donovan, Ann
Magnuson), older sister Julie (Michelle Williams), and even Julie's boyfriend,
Allen (Chris Klein). Allen, in the aftermath of the tragedy, begins to form a
close bond with the grieving family. In fact, he feels so obligated to take care
of the family, he decides to take serious action once taking notice of Becky's
As for Pearl, he
happens to have a flaw or two of his own. Although he has a complicated
relationship outside of work, he engages in an affair with a co-worker (Kerry
Washington). Later, he confronts Leland's famous father in a hotel bar, and
although Pearl sort of worships the guy from a literary standpoint, he is
stunned to see that even he can spot his motive for helping Leland; nothing more
than a book opportunity.
What I responded to
mostly in The United States of Leland
is the unconventional narrative approach to the story. It doesn't unfold like
your basic average drama, and it becomes quite revealing as scenes go by. We
learn more about what happened in a richly written way. The ending of the film
is especially powerful, as it illustrates what actions can be produced as a
result from a murder, in the least expected person.
I should probably
note that although I recommend the film highly, not everyone is expected to
respond to the film in the same light. It's a film that may leave an unanswered
question or two, but it asks you to draw your own conclusions regarding specific
areas, which can be engaging at times.
United States of Leland is a
gripping and mesmerizing character study that is written and directed
marvelously and acted to perfection by a remarkable cast, and is certainly one
of the best independent films I've seen in quite some time.
delivered quite a beautiful looking presentation. The anamorphic picture makes
the absolute most of some striking cinematography courtesy of DP James Glennon.
The imagery resonates in superb clarity and an all around strong level of image
detail that enhance the effect of this film to an even greater level. A
remarkable and flawless presentation.
This is a
dialogue-oriented movie, and yet the 5.1 mix offered manages to have some
impact. Some set pieces come into play with the rear and front stages, as well
as some sequences of dramatic impact. Dialogue is, of course, terrifically clean
as can be.
Only a trailer for
the movie, as well as a bonus previews for additional Paramount releases.