The United States of Leland (April 7/04)
The United States of Leland is a flawed but nevertheless intriguing look at an unconceivable murder, and the way it impacts the lives of several characters. Writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge is clearly an ambitious filmmaker, though his ability doesn't always match his occasionally epic sensibilities. The movie often seems to be going for a 21 Grams sort of vibe, with the pieces of the story falling into place deliberately, but the overabundance of periphery characters and their respective subplots winds up hurting the film more than anything else.
The United States of Leland is one of those movies that's a lot more effective the less you know about the story, but this much is laid out for us in the first ten minutes: Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) has apparently murdered a young mentally handicapped boy, a crime that aspiring writer Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle) plans to turn into a novel. There are many other characters - including Leland's estranged father Albert (Kevin Spacey) and ex-girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone) - but the film primarily revolves around Pearl's relationship with Leland.
Ryan Gosling, the superb actor best known for his role in The Believer, delivers a performance that's far more inward than anything he's done before, which makes it difficult for us to connect with the character. Leland spends the majority of the movie's first third completely silent, leaving us to wonder just what's going on inside his head. Gosling is saddled with a character that's bland in comparison to his Believer role, and though he's undeniably quite effective playing a much more low-key figure, he's certainly not the electrifying figure he was in that movie (which was probably the point, actually).
That's really the heart of The United States of Leland's inability to cross over from good movie to great movie: at the film's center is a figure that's just not all that compelling. Periphery characters, such as Cheadle's Pearl or Spacey's Albert, seem to hold more promise, though the film doesn't develop them to the same extent as Leland. There's a sequence featuring a conversation between Pearl and Albert in which they discuss Leland that proves to be the highlight of the film, as there's something fascinating about watching these two actors interact with each other. The movie contains a number of other equally absorbing moments, including a confrontation between the victim's father (played by Martin Donovan) and a reporter looking for a soundbite at the funeral, but there are a number of other tangential subplots that don't fare quite as well (ie Pearl's relationship with his estranged wife, etc).
The most effective portion of the film comes right at the end, with Hoge delivering a long sequence in which he's finally able to transcend the material. It's the sort of vibe that 21 Grams managed to hold throughout its running time, and Hoge effectively captures that feeling of sustained dread (for a while, anyway).