The United States of Leland (2003)

the-united-states-of-leland“Elephant”, a truly disturbing film examined teen murder, the ability of a person to pick up a weapon and murder another person whether justified or not, and continue to do so, and it examined it where none of it made any sense. “United States of Leland” examines that same concept, and though it’s the same basic approach, it’s still a pretty damn good film in the end. Is it so hard to believe that many times there’s just no reason for something bad that happens? For many people, it is. There has to be a reason for everything these days, and what’s most disturbing about this film is that basically there’s just no reason for murder sometimes.

Something in our brain decides it wants to kill, and we adhere to its illogical demands, in exchange for our rationality. It’s just that simple… and that’s why its an uneasy concept to grasp. To some short-sighted viewers, Leland will just be a misogynistic murderer who was the result of a cold father, and basically put upon mother, but those are mere hints that never add up to a full answer, others this will be a film trying to make us feel sorry for a killer, many will say it’s a bash on the mentally retarded. In fact, Leland’s despondency towards the brutal murder will anger others–including the religiously devout, oy. Leland, from beginning to end, thinks his murder is justified only because to him it is, and being in jail with roughnecks can’t change that thought. He says “They want something from me” as if he doesn’t owe them an explanation and they really want a reason because of the murder, but the murder may be just pointless and senseless.

He offers no insight, no thought, no reason, no explanation, and never feels he has to. And with Gosling’s performance, Leland ends up as an allegory for the basic teen mind. He’s simple, and soft-spoken, humble and intelligent, and never shows malice for his disturbing acts. And in some views, Hoge paints him as a martyr in some respects as well, a person who feels he had to commit this murder in exchange for his own life, and though it will be hard for some to look at his point of view, it’s worth looking at it from a shade of gray. Director Hoge pulls off the feeling of cold apathetic emotion very well, and paints the suburbs and the characters with the sense of isolation that we should feel applying to this situation.

Hoge displays a misstep with Leland who he can never seem to have a handle on as well. “Leland” examines the murder and possible reason for the murder, but it never examines the person. Should we hate Leland? Are we supposed to despise him, pity him, or just view him as an enigma, an amalgam of teen puzzlement who felt his purpose was to murder a mentally disabled boy who he felt needed to be murdered? I was never sure, and the Hoge never seemed to be, either, painting him with humanity sometimes, and apathy other times. I was just confused as to what I was supposed to feel about Leland in the end. Meanwhile, there is a great respective cast of raw talent from Spacey, Gosling, and Lena Olin, to Michelle Williams, Kerry Washington, and Don Cheadle et al.

Two of my favorite actors here are pretty much wasted from the get go, as Don Cheadle, an utterly powerful actor, basically phones in his character from “Manic” as the counselor/teacher who finds a deeper connection with one of his students. Though his plot is much more complicated being an author who hopes to market from Leland’s murder, he never convinced me as being anything but the same character from “Manic”. Also, Kevin Spacey, one of my favorite actors of all time is criminally underused to an enormous extent.

Hoge mishandles his character who should have played a much bigger role offering a red herring to what could have amounted to Leland’s murder, but Hoge never seems to know how to approach him, so Spacey only appears in small portions at a time. Spacey is convincing as a basically cold character whose own influence and apathy could have attributed to Leland’s murder, which is never confirmed, while Klein actually pulls in a good performance for once as the loving and caring Allen who consoles his girlfriend played by Michelle Williams in a sublime performance. Jena Malone is fascinating as Becky, Leland’s ex-girlfriend whose own downward spiral in life forms another hint as to the motive of his murder.

Lena Olin, Martin Donovan, and Ann Magnuson are also truly memorable as the allegory for grieving parents hoping to make sense of something so meaningless, and Sherilyn Fenn becomes a symbol of hope whose own life takes an unfortunate turn. But, I can’t stress enough, this is not a film that had you sympathize for a murderer, it’s a film that’s heavily reliant on shades of gray and asks you for your own interpretation. And the plot twist in the climax is so brilliant and wraps up the film perfectly giving us one last view of everyone in this world and helps us take a second look. In spite of Hoge’s inability to handle certain characters, and grossly under using Spacey’s talents, “Leland” is surprisingly a very good film about the utter senselessness of murder and how many times there’s just no explanation for it.