The United States of Leland


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

On a green and leafy avenue, one teenager stands over another, looking at his hands. It's far too quiet for comfort however, and as we see the bloody stains, it's easy to tell that, as so often occurs in American films about suburbia, the idyllic peace is about to be shattered. This isn't another damning indictment of family values in the same vein as The Ice Storm or American Beauty, however; rather, United States of Leland is an accomplished feature about sin and redemption in Middle America.

The most striking aspect of the film by writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge is the resemblance it bears to another oddball tale of middle class teenage angst - Donnie Darko. Waspish suburb? Check. Uber-cool soundtrack? Check (The Pixies this time instead of Tears for Fears). Jena Malone playing the girlfriend of the central disturbed teen? Check. Even visual parallels are present; see the bereaved mother outside on the lawn taking a drag on her cigarette instead of crying in the literal sense.

Perhaps most clearly, though, the similarity lies in the shared protagonist; a troubled adolescent male in a community where authority figures scream hypocrisy, who tries to solve the problems in the world around him, though in very different ways. Whereas Donnie sacrificed himself in order to save his family, Leland commits murder, almost at random. He thinks any happiness in the world is superficial and, behind this thin veneer of hope, there is nothing but "sadness" in the world. He can see it in the drug habit Becky (Malone) is unable to shake, in the deteriorating relations in the families he does - and doesn't - live with, and in the illicit affair his teacher (Don Cheadle) is conducting with another member of staff while his partner is out of town.

As if to prove a point, Leland kills the mentally disabled brother of his ex-girlfriend. He's been walking him home from school, because "he gets a bang out of it", but he can't take the pain he thinks the boy must feel, being trapped behind the impenetrable barrier of his disability, all of the things he will never know or feel. The crime, while to put the boy out of his misery, is surely an attempt by Leland to achieve the same for himself, and in prison, with the help of Cheadle - an aspiring writer unsure of his motivation for helping the boy - he tries to find a solution to his problems in the ruminations he jots down in a textbook.

This film is solidly made, with the fragmented chronology and flashbacks adeptly reflecting both the confusion in the mind of Leland and the truth unravelling as Madison probes his mind. Sadly it all deflates like a marshmallow when you open the microwave door, and the narrative collapses in on itself as the denouement approaches. Certainly the character of Allen, the conscientious boyfriend of Becky's older sister, is poorly underwritten given the increasing prominence he comes to play.

Of course, it doesn't help that the character is played by Chris "Wooden Spoon" Klein, the tough but gentle soul, with his puppy dog eyes and constant bloody whimpering. If I had my way, he would never be allowed near another film set ever again. Period. Ryan Gosling, too, as the title character is disappointing. Leland is surely supposed to be distanced and spaced out, not merely bored, which appears to be his interpretation (or inability to act). Only Kevin Spacey as Leland's alcoholic bastard of a novelist father impresses, though as executive producer, you begin to wonder if Spacey himself might not be as vain and opportunistic as the character he portrays by casting himself in the small but meaty role.

For all its flaws, the promise Hoge shows in this film means he has every right to absolve himself. He is, as the characters that have wronged others in the course of the film claim to be, "only human" after all.

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2005
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A disaffected US teen searches for meaning through murder.
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Director: Matthew Ryan Hoge

Writer: Matthew Ryan Hoge

Starring: Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin, Kevin Spacey, Michelle Williams

Year: 2003

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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