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April 2004

By Julian Roman

United States of Leland
Distributor: Paramount Classics
Director: Matthew Ryan Hoge
Producers: Kevin Spacey, Bernie Morris, Palmer West and Jonah Smith
Screenwriter: Matthew Ryan Hoge
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Don Cheadle, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin, Kevin Spacey, & Michelle Williams


The United States of Leland is a highly dramatic film that ultimately collapses under its own weight. It wants to accomplish too much. The purpose of the film becomes blurry and in the end unrewarding. It's grasping for cinematic depth through a myriad of interpersonal stories. It's a shame the film doesn't get there because the cast delivers solid, rich performances. The flaw is really in the filmmaking. This is the first feature film from writer/director Matt Hoge. The guy has passion, it's evident on screen, but the film needed some fine-tuning to shore up the story and the pace.

Ryan Goslin stars as Leland P. Fitzgerald, a quiet and detached teenager. The film opens up with Leland murdering a young retarded boy in a park. The crime is terrible and seemingly without motivation. The retarded boy, Ryan, is the younger brother of Becky (Jena Malone). She's a drug addict that has driven a wedge into her family. It turns out that she was the love interest of Leland. Her family consists of her mother (Ann Magnuson), father (Martin Donovan), sister (Michelle Williams), and her sister's live-in boyfriend Allen (Chris Klein).

Leland is arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center. He's forced to go to the prison school and comes to the attention of Pearl (Don Cheadle), one of his teachers. Leland fascinates Pearl. He's curious why Leland committed the murder and starts spending time with him. He then finds out that Leland's father is the great novelist, Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey). Pearl has been attempting to write a book for years. He decides to write about Leland and in the process, develops a strong bond with the boy.

There are numerous plots intertwining in the film. Every character has a different reason for being and this results in the action they take. You have Leland and the murder. Then there's Becky and her family. Pearl's relationship with Leland and an affair he has with a co-worker. Kevin Spacey pops up as Leland's father and there's a conflict between him and Pearl. Allen's character is stuck in the middle of the chaotic events. He loves Becky's sister, but also has a deep affection for her mother and father. There's a lot going on and it does come to a neat conclusion. The problem is that it doesn't really answer the questions posed by the story.

Matt Hoge based the film on his experiences working as a teacher in a juvenile prison. The film does not make any statements about how juveniles are treated and what becomes of them once they go to prison. That's very strange because it seems like Hoge is going down that route, but then never develops it. We never see what Leland's life is really like in prison. All we get are his talks with Pearl and a few scenes scattered around. It's almost as if the environment, which is supposed to be important in the situation, isn't worth exploring. This is one of the film's major faults, the lack of exposition on prison life. Much of the story is told in flashback. This is how we learn about Ryan, Becky, and Leland. The death of Ryan is initially the thrust of the story. It becomes painfully diluted by all the other sub-plots. It's almost an after thought once we understand why Leland killed him. His reasons for the crime are profound and we are meant to see him as a lost soul. The issue is where his detachment comes from if he's so embroiled in thought and emotion. The film never explains why Leland is the way he is. He's not really fleshed out as a character and that's troubling in such a dramatic film.

The performances are good all around. This is an excellent cast and they play their parts well. The biggest surprise is the role of Chris Klein. Allen's character is pivotal to the story and makes the biggest change of anyone in the film. It's a real departure from what we've seen of Klein. The character starts off as a traditional jock, then turns into someone who is much darker than expected. His world is falling apart around him and he takes action to stop it. Allen's sub-plot is by far the most interesting. You understand his motivations clearly, while Leland is a mystery.

The United States of Leland is an admirable first film from Matt Hoge. It bites off more than it can chew, but that can be respected. It would have been better if Hoge had cut away some of his story. He wants to say a lot about everything, but ends up saying very little in the end. See it for the performances and a dose of heavy drama.