The United States of Leland – A Movie Review

Why Every Christian Should Watch This Movie

As Christians, it is important for us to look into the world of art and address the concerns that are often raised there. We tend to interest ourselves very little in the world around us, unless it is in clear violation of our sensibilities. Hollywood is often equated with worldliness, as many of the expressions in cinema appeal to less admirable traits of society. Even their better movies seem to contrast a biblical worldview. But is there any value to watching what Hollywood puts out?

With this review, I want to challenge you to expand your horizons and look for value where you would least expect it. It will require that you look past the manufactured black and white standards that we put up, and look deeper into the arts for redemptive qualities. This won’t be easy, but I gaurantee, it will be rewarding.

Movies are a rather abstract form of expression. Even when the story is linear, the characters, visuals, and cinematography draw several layers. Most movies are designed to entertain, and while many attain this quality, few are able to go beyond that and capture our hearts and challenge our thinking. “The United States of Leland” is a very deep film, centered around a tragedy where the central character is charged with taking the life of a mentally handicapped Child. The story delves into the psychology of humanity and addresses the corruption that is at the very core of our souls. In the end, we are reminded that we are all capable of such pernicious acts and we are left with the question of which was the lesser of these evils.

“Leland” is not a happy, feel good, watch right before bed kind of movie. I have probably seen it over a dozen times and with each experience I am left with a new set of questions rattling my brain. It certainly can’t be approached lightly, or viewed without one’s full attention. Like many serious pieces, there are underlying emphases on the limitations of mankind and the frailty of the human soul. But unlike many of these movies which go on to win awards, Leland is not preachy or narrowly focused; it allows the viewer to fill in the blanks.

As an ensemble piece, each character brings a unique perspective to the story. Ryan Gosling is remarkable. He adds so much to his character which is unlike any I have ever seen before. His control and execution is piercing, eerie, and gripping. His delivery humanizes his character and evokes sympathy from the viewer. Don Cheadle and Kevin Spacey really cement their roles and drive the story, while break out roles from Jena Malone and Michelle Williams round out the cast with amazing emotional performances.

I love the playfulness of the camera as it jumps back and forth between angles to demonstrate perspective. This very subtle effect, which I missed during my first viewing, adds a depth to the story as it focuses in on how a point of view makes a world of difference. The pace and score keep the movie somber and allows the viewer to absorb what is taking place.

The writing of the script is incredibly deep. Several lines create immensely challenging conversational pieces. In response to the line “I’m only human,” Leland says, “It’s funny how people only say that after they do something bad. I mean, you never hear someone say, ‘I’m only human’ after they rescue a kid from a burning building.” When addressing the scruples of Kevin Spacey’s character, Pearly says, “You don’t judge a writer by his life. You judge him by his work. There’s a different moral standard going on here.” And my favorite quote comes at the end where Leland gives a speech on whether or not we really need a God for morality.

“The worst part is knowing that there is goodness in people. Mostly it stays deep down and buried. Maybe we don’t have God because we’re scared of the bad stuff. Maybe we’re really scared of the good stuff. Because if there’s no God, well, that means it’s inside of us and we could be good all the time if we wanted. So when we do bad things, it’d be because we want to or because we have to. Or maybe we just need the bad stuff to remind us what the good stuff is in the first place.”

In the end, the viewer is led to empathize with the lead character, and while this can be good to remind us of our own human nature, we must remind ourselves not to take the sin lightly while getting a sympathetic view towards the consequences of one’s actions. The story is meant to bring humanity to the surface, not lower the standard for morality.

This movie is not clean an any sense of the word. “The United States of Leland” portrays the jagged edges of humanity with such precise accuracy it may be difficult for some people to tolerate. It is rated ‘R’ for violence, drug content, and language. And though it addresses immoral acts, it does not portray anything inappropriate or glorify this sin. I wouldn’t recommend this movie for every Christian. It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for young children. Those who have sensibilities may take issues with its heavy content, but I think we should all strive to get to the place where we can watch this movie and be moved by its redemptive qualities.

With this, I cannot recommend “The United States of Leland” enough. I think it is the finest that Hollywood has to offer and it provides far more depth and provokes greater conversation than any so called ‘Christian’ movie. So, take some time to challenge your frame of reference and enjoy an amazing movie that will will evoke great emotion and profound questions.


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