Reviewed by: Chris Monroe
|Featuring:||Don Cheadle (Ocean’s Eleven; Rush Hour 2; Swordfish; Mission to Mars; Traffic)
Ryan Gosling (Murder by Numbers; Remember the Titans)
Chris Klein (Rollerball; We Were Soldiers; American Pie 2)
Jena Malone (Cold Mountain)
Lena Olin (Hollywood Homicide
|Director:||Matthew Ryan Hoge|
|Producer:||Kevin Spacey, Bernie Morris, Palmer West, Jonah Smith|
Visiting “The United States of Leland” is an interesting stop that invokes an honest look at life and discusses excellent, challenging ideas. There are some great biblical concepts that are paralleled throughout the story, but in the end, it feels like it is out to preach its own version of goodness.
In suburban life Arizona, high schooler Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), son of renowned author Albert P. Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), is arrested for murdering his ex-girlfriend’s mentally handicapped brother. While in a detention center Leland’s mentor, Pearl (Don Cheadle), an aspiring writer, takes a vested interest in Leland with hopes of using his story for a new book. Day by day, Leland divulges more and more about his life and consistently confronts the status quo of society. Eventually, Leland’s actions affect him and those around him until they end up changing in some way—either for good or for evil.
There is some foul language at certain moments and a scenario involving drug use. There is no sex scene, but one scene involves Pearl making out with a woman, and it is understood that they sleep together. Both of these situations ultimately have a negative result. Another scene depicts Leland laying fairly intimately next to an older, divorced woman, and we can infer from the story that they had sex. There are also a couple incidents of violence, but they refrain from being overly graphic.
The story has a clear plot, but the focus of this film is on the character of Leland. As we learn more about this disenchanted youth, he expresses how he began to see beyond people’s exteriors and past their facades. What he claims to have discovered is a real sadness in people. Leland’s insight hits on an idea found in Proverbs 14:13, which says, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain and the end of joy may be grief.” Socially, Leland comes across as very detached from people, but he is unique in having tapped into something very honest and real.
Along with this idea, the film also addresses the belief that human beings are fallible. Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned.” Pearl tells Leland during one of their meetings that even with our (humans’) best intentions, we still mess up. Leland, however, surprises Pearl, when Leland confronts him about cheating on his girlfriend. Pearl wrestles with this sin (though they don’t term it “sin”), and it challenges him to take a hard look at his actions. This results in arguably the best, most clear example of redemption in the film. Coincidentally, Pearl’s influence on Leland is not without effect.
Another biblical parallel I drew from this film coincides with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:31. In it, Jesus contrasts two sons both asked by their father to go to work. One says he will go work, but doesn’t. The second son says no, initially, but changes his mind and ends up going. The point Christ makes is that those who seem like they’re doing right are really not, while those who are failures (“sinners”) become righteous when they repent. Several characters Leland knows can be likened to each one of the sons.
I felt this film wanted desperately to tell a redemptive story. The previously mentioned elements prompted hope for something great—and there were even moments where the movie took me there emotionally—but, in the end, I felt there was something missing. Eventually it became far too preachy and resulted in purporting its own idea of goodness rather than the truth.
Examples of this are found during Leland’s narration, particularly on his ideas about God. Early on, he says that he thinks people waste their time by crying and praying. He says the Devil makes more sense than God, because it’s good for us to have someone to blame for all the bad stuff that happens. Later, he says that maybe God and the Devil are having a tug of war, because people do good and evil. They get scared and never know which side they’ll end up on.
It would be interesting if these theories were an honest search for truth, but by the end it felt these ideas were projected in order to preach their own ideas of goodness. In his final narration, Leland entertains the thought that if God doesn’t exist, then it could just be “good inside of us.” He suggests that between the good and evil that we do, we just need to practice the good more often. Truth is, none of us are good truly without God.
These sketchy ideas, along with the fact that it almost seems Leland thinks he was helping the mentally handicapped boy by killing him, created dislike for the film overall. The dialogue and acting are okay—as well as the nice, natural lighting—but nothing was outstanding. It all served its own purpose, which I disagreed with.