Dir. Matthew Ryan Hoge, US, 2003, 108 mins
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Spacey, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin
Coming from Trigger Street Productions, United States of Leland is another of Spacey’s smaller pet projects in which he cannily casts himself in a small supporting role, his presence always ensuring press and public attention. Fortunately, it is a risk that pays dividends with Leland detailing an exceptionally mature narrative, aided by all-round strong performances from a fine ensemble cast. In his directorial debut, Hoge presents us with a tour de force.
The story centres on Leland P. Fitzgerald (Gosling), an intelligent but emotionally-disturbed young man who has stabbed to death the autistic brother of his former girlfriend (Malone). Reviled by the public and the murdered boy’s family as a cold-blooded killer, he’s admitted to a juvenile detention facility where he comes to the attention of Pearl (Cheadle), an English teacher who is surprised when Leland shows interest in his studies. The son of a famous writer, Albert Fitzgerald (Spacey), whom Pearl admires, the teacher finds his interest sparked by the boy and determines to understand him better, all with the aim of writing a book. Despite being refused permission by the facility authorities to do so, Pearl and Leland contrive to meet regularly, and Pearl is very soon moved by the depth of the boy’s feelings and view of the world, and begins himself to start questioning his own feelings and beliefs. On his history of the ‘United States’ Leland scratches in the words ‘of Leland’ after the title. This is not a display of arrogant megalomania, merely his statement that this is how he sees the world.
The key question in the narrative, and the answer Pearl seeks, is why did this sensitive boy suddenly commit such a heinous crime? With much of the backstory being relayed via Leland, either to Pearl or to his journal, we learn how he barely sees his father – indeed, the man sends him on holiday every year, but never to see him – and is detached from his mother. He can’t remember much about the day of the killing, but in flashbacks we witness tender moments where he befriends the boy. Leland also remembers his ex-girlfriend, a girl from a good family who eventually dumps him to return to her crack-dealing newly-released boyfriend, and to partake in the little white stuff.
Running parallel to Leland’s reminiscings, we learn about the consequences his actions have on the boy’s family, and in particular on the live-in boyfriend (Klein) of his girlfriend’s older sister. As she grows distant from him, and questions their future together, he begins to harbour angry feelings towards the agent of their demise, leading to a denouement that is both tragic and yet somehow inevitable.
Without revealing too much of the plot, there is a kind of satisfying poetic justice to the film’s climax and one which invites the audience to draw parallels between the autistic, shut out world of the murdered boy, and that of the detached Leland, and the fate of both.
With its non-linear plot, and complexities of sub-plots, United States of Leland is a very mature film, assuredly directed. Hoge entices convincing performances from his cast. Gosling delivers on all his previous promise and manages to convey his inner turmoils without deviating from the detachment (or, paradoxically, the over-attachment) of his character. Cheadle plays a flawed human being, someone who cheats on his girlfriend, cares about himself and yet cares about other people. Chris Klein is a revelation, demonstrating that beyond the American Pie tomfoolery here is a young actor capable of demanding roles. Spacey himself turns in a vintage Spacey performance, reptilian and deftly dishing out the curt one-liners.
Jena Malone’s presence adds further interest. She plays a similar role to that of Donnie Darko, but with a darker edge, and very ably takes the girlfriend role that step further. However, her name on the cast cannot help but reference the 2001 cult classic and, indeed, devoid of the metaphysical aspects and concentrating on the philosophical questions, complete with central troubled youth, and a complexity of relationships around him, one can’t help but think this is something like a Donnie Darko for an older generation and, for this writer, that’s a recommendation in itself.