The United States of Leland

Apr 14, 2004 at 12:00 am

This murky psychological mystery begins with what seems an inexplicable crime. A teenage boy murders his ex-girlfriend’s autistic younger brother, stabbing him 40 times. The killer, Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), a bright and sensitive — if emotionally screwed-up — kid, has no previous history of violent activity and claims to have committed the murder in a blackout. He’s sent to a juvenile detention center where he’s counseled by a sympathetic teacher named Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle). From this point on the movie becomes a slow teasing out of Leland’s motive for his explosive act, with alternating voice-overs from a journal he’s keeping, his conversations with Madison and flashbacks of events leading up to the crime.

The main problem with this movie is that it’s overwritten, consisting of too many scenes where people try to express feelings they barely understand with words they can barely conjure up. Whatever dramatic interest is roused by the opening scenes soon dissipates amid all the incoherent angst. Though Leland’s ex-girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone) is the worst offender when it comes to unrevealing ramblings, Leland himself is the most maddeningly inarticulate, as well as incredibly naive, sounding at times like Beaver Cleaver on Thorazine.

The adults come across as a little more interesting. Cheadle’s Pearl Madison is torn between a genuine concern for Leland and a realization that the boy’s complicated alienation would be good material for a book. Kevin Spacey as Leland’s father — a successful novelist who seems not only distant from his son but from every other human being on Earth — does his snarky/ironic thing to a T, but his combined scenes probably add up to about 15 minutes of screen time. Both actors manage to inject a little life into the proceedings, but not nearly enough.

The most thankless role goes to Chris Klein, the boyfriend of Becky’s sister who serves as the movie’s deus ex machina, providing the film’s unexpected and unsatisfying climax.

And once the event which drove Leland to his psychotic episode is revealed, it doesn’t seem to quite add up. After forcing us to sit through reams of fumbling dialogue the least the film could do is offer a final “a ha!” moment. But instead it just winds down and fades away, soon to be forgotten.


Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (211 South Woodward Ave. Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456 for more information.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].