If you ask Judge Diane Wild, intellectualizing the murder of a helpless child doesn't make the story more involving.
Crime. Confusion. Compassion. They're all just states of mind.
The United States of Leland is an imperfect character study for pessimists. It might not be for everyone, but maybe there's something to be said for a movie that not only doesn't wrap things up neatly at the end, but doesn't necessarily have a cohesive point to make.
Facts of the Case
Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling, Murder by Numbers) seems like a typical teen, except for one atypical action—he has stabbed an autistic child to death.
Sent to a juvenile detention center, Leland meets a kind teacher, Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle, Traffic), who encourages him to write down his thoughts. Frustrated writer Pearl's interest in Leland contains some self-interest, too, as he senses a potential book idea in the story of this quiet, articulate 15 year old who inexplicably killed a helpless boy he was apparently fond of.
Leland's absentee father is famous writer Albert T. Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), which intrigues Pearl all the more. But dear old dad refuses to help with Pearl's research, reserving the possibility of writing his own book out of the tragedy. He also refuses to try to bridge the distance between himself and his son, since he realizes the gap is too vast for any attempt.
The murdered boy is the brother of Leland's former girlfriend, Becky (Jena Malone, Donnie Darko). Though she broke up with him to return to her recently paroled boyfriend, that isn't offered as the reason for Leland's crime. Though The United States of Leland is an examination of the "why" behind Leland's senseless action, there is no magic answer. Instead, there is an underlying exploration of the evil that lies inside us all.
The opening shot in The United States of Leland is a blurry image with overly bright colors, showing bits and pieces of a scene: it's the aftermath of the murder. "I can't remember that day," says Leland's voiceover. "Sometimes the most important things just disappear." And then the screen goes black. A blurry image for a blurry memory. Blankness on the screen echoing the blankness in his mind.
One of the beauties of Matthew Ryan Hoge's first feature film is that his filmmaking language mirrors the content of his script.
There are two ways to look at the world, Leland believes. "Positive, where things are mostly okay…or when you see what's really there." This thought is brought to life with a trick of the camera, where characters close one eye, and the camera shows the scene from one visual field, then they close the other, and the other half of the same scene is revealed.
We don't know how to look at the murder of Ryan Pollard. Look at it through one eye, and Leland is a vicious, unrepentant killer. Look at it through the other, and he's a sympathetic but inscrutable character who sees that "everyone's always dying inside" and who can't live with the sadness that surrounds him.
Another beauty of the movie is the use of small, telling scenes that define personalities and relationships. Our first glimpse of Kevin Spacey as the critical and cold father shows him adding a missing apostrophe to the magazine he's reading, as he flies to see Leland after his arrest. We see Ryan's grieving father clinging to his wife, who stands stiffly in his embrace, and little more needs to be said about their distant relationship. We see Allen (Chris Klein, American Pie) comforting his girlfriend and Ryan's other sister Julie (Michelle Williams, The Station Agent), making his affection for her obvious.
The characters in the movie are neither good nor bad, but a blend of both. Murder is at one end of the spectrum of good and evil, but Pearl cheating on his girlfriend and Albert's aloofness, for example, are somewhere along the continuum towards evil.
"I'm only human," Pearl shrugs as he explains his infidelity to Leland.
"It's funny, people only say that after they do something bad," Leland counters, pointing out that no one says those words after rescuing a child from a burning building.
The good versus evil theme gets a bit of a work out, as people try to demonize Leland. But the movie refuses to portray the detached Leland as a monster, despite the monstrousness of his crime.
"I wonder how much of their lives people waste crying and praying to God," Leland's voiceover ponders. "If you ask me, the devil makes more sense than God does. I can at least see why people would want him around. It's good to have somebody to blame for the bad stuff they do."
The only real epiphany in the movie is the realization that we know right from wrong, and choose to do wrong anyway. Whatever "why" Pearl comes up with for cheating, whatever "why" is buried in Leland's mind for the killing, is ultimately irrelevant. Wrong was committed, and no reason reduces the harm.
The movie jumps back and forth in time, always with signposts to let us know where we are in the story. Even this structure mirrors one of the movie's themes, the fragmentary nature of life. We see fragments of a scene rather than the entire action from beginning to end. In fact, the suspense of the story lies in the missing pieces. What is Becky hiding? Where do Ryan's sister Julie and her boyfriend Allen fit in? And yes, the why—why did Leland do it?
"You have to believe that life is more than the sum of its parts, kiddo," Leland says in voice over, quoting an older woman he has been drawn to since he was a child. "But what if you can't put the pieces together in the first place?" he asks himself.
Hoge's story certainly doesn't come together like a puzzle. The missing pieces never entirely materialize, and the fragments never collect into a complete picture. Perhaps most damaging, despite a solid performance by Ryan Gosling, is that Leland's blankness and intellectualization never turns into a believable character.
Don Cheadle has an intensity and charisma that bigger stars should envy, and Kevin Spacey plays the self-proclaimed asshole father with a sharpness that stings. But the rest of the supporting characters aren't developed enough to make much of an impression, particularly the victim. He is more symbol than character, but it will be hard for many viewers (impossible for some) to view the killing of a child as a symbolic act.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation is nearly perfect, with great color, strong contrast, and no edge enhancement. The dialogue-heavy soundtrack leaves little room for excitement in the sound mix, but is nonetheless clear. It's presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 surround, and English subtitles are available. The only bonus material is a few trailers, leaving a huge void where a commentary or interview with writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge or producer Spacey would have been welcome.
The United States of Leland is a well-crafted movie that doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. There's a lot of intellectualizing along the way with little payoff, but if the subject matter doesn't scare you off, it's worth a rental.
Paramount gets a split decision on a beautiful transfer coupled with a shameful lack of extras. But the director and cast of The United States of Leland are not guilty and free to go.
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