REVIEW: The United States of Leland [2003]

“How much time is wasted by crying and prayer?”

Maybe people do like having the devil around more than God. Maybe we like that safety net of a reason; making a mistake only to blame the devil for the pain and suffering in the world. There is so much hardship, spilling out into the masses, that it is difficult to not see the sadness on the faces of all you pass. Leland P. Fitzgerald understands all of this; he knows that maybe everything won’t be ok, and maybe helping someone leave this Earth to avoid the pain their life has waiting for them is a risk he needs to take for someone he loves. Credit goes to screenwriter/director Matthew Ryan Hoge for creating a lyrical prose about two suburban families who have crossed paths in good times and bad with his second film The United States of Leland. Just looking at the cast of almost all A and B list actors shows that the material really resonates with its audience. Emotions don’t need to be worn on one’s sleeve to exist. Sometimes all we want to do is end the suffering.

Ryan Gosling brings an understated performance to the table here that encompasses the inwardness of his character Leland’s emotions. He is a very passionate and intelligent young man, cutting through the BS of life, knowing what he sees and accepting the worse with the better. The film is a catharsis for the souls of those affected by the horrific event of Leland killing his ex-girlfriend’s mentally challenged brother. In the confused mind of this teen, he goes into the incident knowing full well what he was going to do, he was going to stop the pain that he sees everywhere, but most of all on the face of young Ryan Pollard. Almost immediately he realizes that he has made a mistake, that maybe playing God is not a job he has been put on Earth to do. Whether or not this is true will soon be put to debate as the murder begins a chain of events, which finally bring meaning to many people’s lives as they wake up to the tangential fragility of life. This boy has opened their eyes to both sorrow and rebirth.

With haunting ballads sung by former Sunny Day Real Estate frontman Jeremy Enigk, the movie goes through a journey of small vignettes of two families’ lives in the aftermath of tragedy. The acting is superb throughout with special mention to a few. For someone who plays the naïve lug in most films, Chris Klein actually does well with much the same material here, yet also with an evolution into a man of purpose. His aloofness is effective when utilized in the right part, similar to his success in Election, and I am interested to see if directors will be allow him to expand his talents and sink his teeth into something more substantial. Jena Malone is effective in much the same effect as well, playing the role of troubled youth as she has in Donnie Darko and Life as a House; Don Cheadle is a stalwart of professionalism giving us a different take on the compassionate therapist from the one he did in Manic; and Martin Donovan is brilliant as the grieving father trying to keep his wits together and eventually realizing he must keep his family from falling apart as well. Also, it is great seeing the beautiful Sherilyn Fenn in a small but important role.

When tragedy hits, people band together to get through it all. As Leland astutely points out at one point, you see men and women helping others out and hugging when they see the pain and suffering surrounding them, but after a couple of days everything goes back to normal. Cheadle’s character extrapolates the optimistic viewpoint that at least we get a glimpse of people’s true nature of wanting to help and be good to each other, only to be shot back at with the retort, “well at least we do during tragedy.” Maybe we don’t want to think we are good natured because it does make us feel we should be good all the time, and that when bad, must have in-turn meant to be so. By being flawed we allow ourselves to rebound and try again. Leland’s mistake lets him see the love he had for those close to him as well as opening the eyes of others to wake up and not let their loved ones drift any further from them. One can’t focus on the sadness of others when they must first come to grips with their own. Hoge has crafted a parable for this and a truly effective piece of filmmaking with hopefully many more to come.

The United States of Leland 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Ryan Gosling and Jena Malone in Paramount Classics’ United States of Leland, directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge.
[2] Don Cheadle as Pearl Madison in Paramount Classics’ United States of Leland, directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge.


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