The United States of Leland
January 31, 2005
The United States of Leland (2003) is a disturbing trip into the mind of a troubled young man named Leland Fitzgerald (Gosling). This 15-year old boy is in juvenile hall for killing the mentally handicapped kid brother of his girlfriend, Becky (Malone). While incarcerated, he starts talking to his teacher, Pearl Madison (Cheadle), who is fascinated by the quiet, withdrawn youth. Pearl is a writer stuck in a rut and smelling a potential best seller encourages the boy to write down his thoughts in a journal. Pearl also interviews Leland and tries to make sense of this horrible murder. Of course, Leland turns out to be one of those wise-beyond-his-years types who ends up teaching Pearl something about himself.
As the film progresses, bits and pieces of Leland’s difficult past start to come into focus. His father is famous novelist, Albert Fitzgerald (Spacey), an ex-patriot living in Paris who hasn’t seen his son since he was a little boy. Becky is a troubled teen with a raging drug habit. She broke up with Leland shortly before he killed her brother. Further complicating matters is the scenes between Leland and her brother that show nothing but admiration for him. This only clouds the issue of why he did it.
Leland’s friends and family try to make sense of what happened but everyone, including the dead boy’s mother talk to each other dispassionately—doesn’t anyone in this movie feel anything? Everyone seems to be wandering through the movie like a zombie. I understand that after such a shocking incident, a certain numbness brought on by grief sets in but this seems to affect everyone in the cast. This comes across as rather one-sided and unrealistic.
Ryan Gosling, an up-and-coming actor who has had brilliant turns in such films as The Believer (2001) and The Slaughter Rule (2002) is quite good as a sensitive young man who has trouble relating to the rest of the world. The actor is clearly better than the material, suggesting a whole inner life with a look. Jena Malone is also excellent, showing yet again that she is one of the best actresses of her generation who excels at creating complex characters as she did in Donnie Darko (2001) and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002). In fact, the entire cast is fantastic but they really don’t have much to work with and are subsequently wasted.
Matthew Hoge’s film has the best intentions but often comes across as pretentious twaddle. There are several needless shots of characters looking soulfully off camera as they try to figure out the meaning of it all. Leland is prone to pontificating endlessly about life in a touchy-feely way that comes across as overtly arty and ostentatious.
A theatrical trailer.
The United States of Leland tries to deal with the senseless nature of murder by a disaffected youth much in the same vein as River’s Edge (1986) but without the gritty, unflinching realism. I admire what Hoge is trying to say with this movie: making sense of what would lead someone to murder another person. However, his film provides little insight or answers to their motivation, what influenced them and what or who shaped their worldview. Hoge’s film falls into many of the traps that plague a first time feature. With more tweaking of the script, The United States of Leland could have been a much better movie.