|The United States of Leland
2004 - R - 108 Mins.
|Director: Matthew Hoge
|Producer: Kevin Spacey
|Written By: Matthew Hoge
|Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kevin Spacey, Don Cheadle, Lena Olin, Jena Malone, Chris Klein
|Review by: Harrison Cheung
|Official Site: www.paramountclassics.com/leland/main.html
During its film festival circuit last year, ‘The United States of Leland’ was often compared to ‘Donnie Darko’ which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and has become a cult favorite with its whimsical analysis of life and existence, sweetened with its witty doses of pop culture references to other cult horror and sci-fi films.
But watching ‘Leland,’ I was struck more by the title character’s kinship to Wes Bentley’s oddball in ‘American Beauty’ – the offbeat guy who would muse over the fluttering of a plastic bag, caught in a draft. Like ‘Darko’ and ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Leland’ ambitiously wants to peel back a strange story set in super bland suburbia. Call ‘Leland’ an ‘American Beauty’ for the OC crowd.
Ryan Gosling – the talented Canadian actor who impressed the Sundance Film Festival with his searing portrayal of a Jewish skinhead in 2001’s ‘The Believer’ and again the next year as a boy struggling with an unhealthy relationship with his football coach in ‘The Slaughter Rule’ – stars as Leland Fitzgerald, a seemingly innocent, sensitive but emotionally numb and out-of-phase teenager who has killed the autistic brother of his former girlfriend in broad daylight. With a stumbling gait, measured speech and a mess of Gyllenhaal-like hair, Gosling portrays Leland with great sincerity. He is always fascinating to watch and it's interesting to see Leland's progress, told in flashbacks, as he starts to step out of sync with the rest of the world, wounded by traumatic events in his life that eventually come to light by the end of the film.
As Leland is the son of a famous writer, the case generates much publicity and the film asks us to try to understand why Leland committed this seemingly senseless murder.
‘Leland’, which comes from Kevin Spacey’s production company, is smart but over-written, as if first time writer/director Matthew Hoge wanted every sentence out of Leland’s mouth to be a fortune cookie profundity. (It’s like the first time as a kid when you realize that GOD is DOG spelled backwards, man!) Leland can see and empathize better than you and me, you see, so in spite of the fact that he killed a kid for his own dubious or insane reasons, he has a insightful effect on the world around him which includes his teacher/case worker Pearl (Don Cheadle) and his ex-girlfriend Becky, played by Donnie Darko alum, Jena Malone.
Even though Leland is a self-confessed murderer, there’s a swirl of characters around him that starts to question the morality and ethics of the world. Yes, murder is awful, the movie says, but aren’t other people doing bad things too? Leland gets awfully preachy and judgmental for a murderer! Pearl wants to befriend Leland but he also wants to use Leland so that he can write his own book based on this murder case. He is also cheating on his girlfriend. Becky has a drug problem and was happily stoned when her brother was murdered. Overseeing this strange soap opera is Kevin Spacey, who plays Leland’s acerbic celebrity author father with dripping sarcasm. Spacey was, of course, a distant dad who didn't love his son particularly warmly.
The impressive cast includes Martin Donovan, Lena Olin, Chris Klein, and Sherilyn Fenn but ultimately, ‘Leland’ is an acting showcase for Gosling who is making a career of playing unusual characters. If only Hoge’s writing and direction had more polish and style, ‘Leland’ could have been more interesting to watch. Imagine if ‘Leland’ was directed by say, David Lynch or even Darko’s Robert Kelly, the film would have had the visual panache to match its lofty philosophical ambitions.