There’s lots of talk in Matthew Ryan Hoge’s deadly serious, almost funereal film about mistakes; virtually all the major characters admit at some point to having made a a big one–it’s a motif that runs through the script. So isn’t it time that the makers of “The United States of Leland” admit theirs, too?
In the most general terms the picture–about the mysterious reasons behind an apparently docile suburban teen’s murder of a young retarded boy, and the impact the crime has on the families involved–resembles plenty of similar Lifetime Network movies (usually centering on mothers who must cope with their sons’ being accused of some terrible act). But it has much higher aspirations: it wants to look beyond the deceptively happy surface of typical upper-middle-class life to show the pervasive sadness that explains such explosions of violence. Or as Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), the oddly placid boy accused of the killing, says, everybody wants to know “the ‘why’” of his act. By the time the picture grinds to an end, though, the issue its few viewers will probably be wondering about is “why” so many talented actors were attracted to such a mediocre script. “The United States of Leland” features a remarkable cast, but none are seen to very good advantage in it. Even the likes of Gosling and Kevin Spacey (who also serves as one of the producers) can’t turn this zinc into gold.
The picture is punctuated by floridly hollow narration from a journal Leland keeps while in juvenile hall, a special allowance given him by Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a teacher and would-be writer who’s fascinated by the boy and hopes to pen a book about him, especially since Leland is the son of a world-famous novelist (Spacey). Madison arranges interviews with the kid even though his boss (Ron Canada) orders him not to, and he approaches the boy’s dad, who sees through him and has motives of his own for keeping his son away from him. (Pearl also enjoys a night in the sack with a co-worker while his girlfriend is away in California and gets caught–that’s his “mistake.”) Meanwhile the focus shifts periodically to the family of the dead boy: the distraught parents (Martin Donovan, who has never looked so much like Andrew McCarthy, and Ann Magnuson); older daughter Julie (Michelle Williams), who’s having second thoughts about her long-term commitment to her loving boyfriend Allen (Chris Klein), a clean-cut fellow living with the Pollards after his own mother’s death and deeply protective of his hosts; and younger daughter (and drug addict) Becky (Jena Malone), who’d had a close friendship with Leland until her ex-connection got out of jail and invited her to reconnect with him. The breakup provides an easy rationale for Leland’s violent action, but the point is that such an explanation would be much too facile: it’s suggested that the boy suffers from a far deeper sense of teenage and familial angst that triggers his curiously muted rage.
The script is filled with suggestions of deep currents swirling beneath the slow, sleepy facade of suburban life and promises to reveal them, but ultimately the nature of the event is left as much a mystery at the close as it was at the beginning. Given the opaque character of Hoge’s writing and his soporific, halting direction, the fine cast struggles to achieve any depth or clarity. Gosling underplays so strenuously that Leland becomes a blank, a cipher at the center of things; one can admire the technique, but the result is boring. So does Klein, who makes Allen so soft and recessive that his natural charm is all that’s left. (The boyfriend’s final action, moreover, is so predictable that when it actually happens, it seems like a memory.) Spacey coasts by on his usual clipped delivery, and as his wife Lena Olin is oddly anonymous; and while Donovan and Magnuson can offer little more than a generalizing grieving bafflement. Cheadle, meanwhile, tries to insert some vitality into the gloomy proceedings, but the flaccid staging of his scenes undermines his efforts. In fact, the only person who manages to engage emotionally is Malone; her performance might occasionally go overboard, but at least she doesn’t appear to be under the influence of sleeping tablets, as so many of the other cast members do. (By the close, plenty of the viewers will be groggy, too.) Visually the film has little style; it has the look of most mediocre independent pictures, with flat cinematography by James Glennon and aimless editing by Jeff Betancourt. (The goal was probably to accentuate the ordinariness of the setting, and if so the filmmakers have succeeded all too well.) Jeremy Enigk’s score is sparse and ineffectual.
“The United States of Leland” drones on for early two hours, detailing the unremittingly miserable lives of the tortured Fitzgeralds and Pollards until the narrative circle is predictably closed by a second act of violence, one that’s telegraphed very far in advance. Unfortunately, watching their misery makes the audience more miserable than the characters. This is a pretentious, dreary film, which is also frustratingly unenlightening.