United States of Leland
Review by Zachary Keith Parker
United States of Leland starts out with sixteen-year old, Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) telling the audience he doesn’t know “why” he did what he did. Soon we see what he is referring to—he killed Ryan Pollard (Michael Welch), a young, mentally-challenged boy who just happens to be the brother of Leland’s ex-girlfriend, Becky (Jena Malone, Donnie Darko).
Ryan's sister, Julie (Michelle Williams, Dawson’s Creek), is struggling with little Ryan’s death and her impending breakup with Allen Harris (Chris Klein). Ryan’s parents, Harry and Ann, are feeling just as mournful for Ryan as they are for the disorder his death brings to their family.
Leland’s mom, Marybeth (Lena Olin), is the only one remotely concerned for Leland’s wellbeing. His father, Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), is a renowned author with a reputation for being a “bastard jerk.”
Worried about his future literary reputation, Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle) is a teacher at the juvenile hall where Leland now lives. Pearl covets the distinction of Albert Fitzgerald’s novels. In Leland, he sees a thoughtful young man and potential New York Times bestseller. So each afternoon, Pearl unlawfully holds conversations with Leland, questioning him about life.
The different lives and stories eventually collide, while Leland’s narration throughout the film unites the film in theme. Matthew Ryan Hoge, writer and director, mostly focuses on representing Leland, not as a punk kid with an obsession with guns or drugs, but as a troubled teen who has messed up his own life and the lives around him.
In an interview, Matthew Ryan Hoge clearly conveyed his commitment to showing a more human side of not a murderer, but an innocent child who has murdered another innocent child and must recognize his sin.
However, “sin” may be too biblical of a word to apply to this movie. While Hoge incorporates one philosophical discourse after another into the story, he does not directly address God or any Christian worldview. \At one point, Leland suggests the possibility of God as on one side of a tug-of-war, but the movie ambiguously discredits that suggestion. Leland offers another idea:
“The worst part is knowing there is goodness in people, somewhere deep and buried. Maybe we don’t have God cuz we’re scared of the bad stuff. Cuz if there’s no God, then that means it’s inside of us, and we could be good all the time if we wanted. So when we do bad stuff it’s because we want to or because we have to. Or maybe we need the bad stuff to remind us of what the good stuff is in the first place.”
Hoge does not settle for any definite answer, but almost cops out by layering the story with ambiguities.
Pearl does answer Leland’s concern over making sure people know he messed up. He encourages Leland, saying,
“Whether or not it [Ryan’s murder] makes sense to me doesn’t really matter. Whatever happened, whatever you were thinkin’, isn’t the most important thing right now. The most important thing right now is what happens to you Leland. Because you do control that to some extent . . . What you did was wrong, and I know you know that . . . . You can’t make it unhappen, but nobody ever can. But just because what you did was wrong, doesn’t mean that giving up on your life is right.”
Although this sounds rather humanistic, a repeated phrase from the movie does reveal the innate human desire for something more substantial—“You’ve got to believe that life is bigger than the sum of its parts, kiddo.” As such, movies like United States of Leland show an important side of the psychological problems that face all humans, even Christians.
Despite its ignorance of Christianity, United States of Leland is a well-crafted and intensely thought-provoking story. The film contains some incredibly strong performances from Don Cheadle and Chris Klein, as well as Ryan Gosling’s remarkable portrayal of a troubled, but seemingly compassionate, teen, which rivals Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Donnie in the similar film, Donnie Darko.
It nails certain moral issues, and asks other important ethical questions, but fails in terms of recognizing the value of the Christian worldview. United States of Leland will mostly interest the character movie viewer, who does not mind the plodding story or the often heavy philosophical discussions.