In Matthew Ryan Hoge’s The United States of Leland, Ryan Gosling plays Leland P. Fitzgerald, a detached 16 year-old from a well off home, who is accused of murder. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Leland shows up at a juvenile detention centre, and we are introduced to his parents, and the family of the victim. As the movie progresses, we learn Leland’s back story. We meet his father (played by the always despicable Kevin Spacey), learn about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone), and delve into the lives of the two families shattered by Leland’s arrest. Yet we’re still uncertain whether or not Leland actually committed the horrific act for quite some time. He strikes up a relationship with Pearl Madison, a teacher at the detention centre (Don Cheadle), who is looking to use Leland’s story to further his writing career. Leland’s troubled life begins to reveal itself, as do those of the very flawed supporting characters. The movie builds to a shocking climax, and that final act, along with the rest of the movie, is likely to give you a lot to think about.
The conversations between Leland and Pearl at the detention center are really the crux of this movie. Leland offers insight into his worldview, and questions Pearl’s own with startling clarity. And in these scenes, Gosling definitely holds his own with Cheadle, which is no small feat. Gosling delivers his words in a disjointed, flat style, and it fits with Leland’s character perfectly; he’s totally believable as this troubled young man. This film was made a few years before The Notebook or Half Nelson, but Gosling’s skill was just as sharp then as it is now.
The rest of the stellar cast does a nice job playing their own integral little parts in the story. Some people would vehemently disagree, but I thought Chris Klein stood out amongst the younger members of the supporting cast. Klein gets a lot of hate online (especially now, with his poorly handled hair loss and apparently laughable work in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), but I think he deserves more credit. He played his role well in Election, and though his character here, Allen, initially seems like a similar all-American lovable goon, it’s actually a much more complex role. Some critics have said that the film could have delved into Allen’s story a little more, but I think that we got a good sense of who he was based on a few key details. One of my favourite parts of the film (and it’s an admittedly bizarre moment to latch onto) is near the end, when Allen is setting off to do something that will change the entire direction of the story. We don’t know what Allen’s planning to do, but he’s visibly nervous as he gets out of his car. At the last minute before leaving it, he remembers to scoot back and make sure that the car door is locked. When you find out what he’s planning to do next, checking the door handle seems like a ridiculous thing for Allen to be thinking about. But I think that one tiny action says so much about his character, and makes the next scene even more shocking in comparison to the person that we see him as. If I had to choose a weak link in the cast, I’d say it’s Jena Malone. I liked her in Donnie Darko and Saved!, but I’m not buying her in “badass” roles like this one, or 2007’s The Go-Getter. You would think that a teenage junkie character would at least be colourful, but she’s actually pretty dull.
The United States of Leland is not a perfect movie, by any means. Many have complained about the abundance of side-plots and minor characters. I didn’t mind movies with a lot of characters and storylines that all intertwine, but I did find that these multiple storylines did distract from The United States of Leland‘s focus at times. While the overall structure of the film was a bit dicey at times, I thought the movie brought up a lot of interesting questions about morality and life. If you like Holden Caulfield’s stream-of-consciousness observation in The Catcher in the Rye, you’ll probably like Leland’s bleak worldview. I did find myself relating to a lot of his observations, but the lengths that he took his ideas to be rather twisted at times. I liked this, because even if I didn’t agree with some of the really outrageous things he was saying, it still felt authentic as to how this guy would see the world, and there was enough truth in his ideas for most people to relate to on some level.
Despite its flaws, I still thought this was a really good movie. I thought a lot about this movie a lot in the days after I watched it, and I still think about some of the ideas and issues that it brings up months after watching it. Probably the only other movie I’ve watched recently that made me think this much was Requiem for a Dream. Not everyone is going to like this movie. It’s relatively dark (though it’s nothing compared to Requiem), but I think that it’s an interesting film, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I watched it mainly for Ryan Gosling’s performance, but I ended up getting a lot more out of it.