Is murder just murder? Can a mistake just be a mistake? Can you have compassion for a kid who killed a defensive, mentally disabled child? These are the questions in "The United States of Leland," a poignant and powerful drama featuring great performances and an excellent screenplay.
Ryan Gosling ("Murder by Numbers") turns in another stunning performance as the title character, Leland P. Fitzgerald. Quiet and distant, Gosling delivers his performance with his eyes and expressions, providing us with an interesting and complicated character who doesn't even know the reason why he did what he did. The movie is not a mystery about who committed the crime, but rather about why the crime was committed. Are all murders committed by ruthless people, or is there more to the story? Should we hate the killer, or should we have compassion? "The United States of Leland" raises some very interesting questions.
Aside from Gosling, who has the makings of a great actor, "Leland" features Don Cheadle as a prison teacher who becomes obsessed with learning the truth, Kevin Spacey as Leland's father, an author who sees his son more as a subject of a book than as his offspring, Chris Klein as a love-stricken orphan and Jena Malone as Leland's estranged girlfriend who's suffering from a drug problem. All of the performances are terrific and right on key, exactly what I would expect from them. Cheadle has always been terrific, as has Malone, who seems to have a real knack for selecting smaller, thought-provoking movies. Klein, best known for the "American Pie" movies, is a pleasant surprise, as I really haven't seen a serious performance out of him up until now.
More than anything else, "Leland" is beautifully crafted. Writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge manages the complicated character tale with ease, using flashbacks and voiceovers appropriately. The movie is very dialogue-driven, and the dialogue is perfect. Hoge should also be commended for making a movie with difficult issues without forcing the audience to make a decision.
"The United States of Leland" is one of the best movies of 2004. Dark without being gritty, sad without being depressing, the movie is a wonderful tale that raises lots of questions and shows off the best side of the actors involved.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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