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THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: 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
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"You want a why. Well, maybe there isn't one. Maybe…Maybe this is just something that happened."

Film ***1/2

The 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 cast.

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 act.

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 very much.

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 drug addiction.

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.

The 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.

Video ****

Paramount has 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.

Audio ***

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.

Features *

Only a trailer for the movie, as well as a bonus previews for additional Paramount releases.

Summary:

The United States of Leland is easily one of the more striking and effective films to deal with alienation amongst teens. It's a powerfully written and directed piece, and an amazingly acted one as well, thanks to a marvelous cast. Those seeking pure cinematic drama needn't look any further.

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