The United States of Leland utilizes the same technique of suburban serenity masking suffering and atrocity that American Beauty did so well. And while I was overtaken by the calmly expressive performances of Ryan Gosling, Don Cheadle and Chris Klein, Leland didn't quite live up to the earlier depiction of the pain simmering under the surface of the American dream. The United States of Leland occasionally seems altogether too calm, to the point of unfeeling, without the bald intensity of something like Van Sant's equally deadpan Elephant. And yet, I was also drawn to it, as much for its faults as its tenderness and fragile beauty.
The film opens with the tragic scene of an autistic boy in a sunny park, dead of several stab wounds to his chest. It is apparent that the seemingly detached yet gentle Leland (Ryan Gosling) is the culprit when we are shown his bandaged hand and he tells his mother, in an even tone, "I think I made a mistake." The film proceeds to tell the story in 2 timelines, going back and forth like a train of thought between the lead up to the murder and its aftermath. Juvenile Dentention Center teacher and aspiring writer, Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), meets with Leland because he sees potential for a story. But Pearl also wants to help Leland; he wonders why such an unassuming young man became a murderer. Through these sessions and flashbacks, we learn of Leland's difficult break-up with his junkie girlfriend Becky Pollard (Jena Malone), who is also the older sister of the boy he killed. This, too, marks the entrance of his aloof and neglectful, as well as renowned, writer father Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), who sends Leland on lonely trips around the world, never visiting with his son. Michelle Williams plays the dead boy's other sister Julie Pollard and Chris Klein plays Allen Harris, her orphaned and now live-in boyfriend, who has become a strikingly intimate member of the Pollard family.
Leland himself, seems nearly autistic in his reservedness and detachment, refraining from any outward displays of emotion. They are his thoughts that we hear, in voiceover, through The United States of Leland. At times, this voiceover called so much attention to itself as calmly wise that it felt, instead, only pretentious. And in some ways The United States of Leland's independent filmic, self-proclaiming epic profundity was equally off-putting. Quotes such as: "Maybe God's there because people are afraid of all the bad stuff they do...If there is no God, that means it's inside of us, and we could be good all of the time if we wanted..." or "People always say 'I'm only human' after they do something bad, not when they save someone from a burning building," can appear groaningly trite. But, then I would remember, that these musings were not necessarily the preaching of an all-knowing art film director, but of a 16-year-old boy, coming to terms with what is good and horrible within each of us. In this way, his thoughts become more sincere.
The shots however, all belong to filmmaker Matthew Hoge. While these, too, at times teeter on the edge of art school redundancy, they are too pure and beautiful to write off completely. The tiny patch of sun shining brightly on Leland's face, while his body folds in itself in the darkness of his cell was as compelling as it was ambivalent, not portraying any one distinct emotion. I could imagine pain, terror, sadness, hope, or regret in that face, but was unsure of any. He also has a habit of looking at things first through one eye, then the other, producing 2 distinctive scenes, though he hasn't moved. This child-like game also serves to emphasize perspective without being too obvious. And Allen's jouncing strides as he angrily storms down the street are captured effectively as the camera bounces along behind, showing the back of his stiffly held head. But the most effective scenes in Leland come in its moments of pause. Both the film and the boy bring forth a very full silence that lingers thickly on the screen.
As a film that exposes the seedier underbelly and unhappiness of average white suburban Americans, The United States of Leland pales in comparison to a success such as American Beauty. But as a film merely exploring the concept of human frailty, mistakes and retribution, as it claims to be, Leland extends a sincere look at these issues through the eyes of a young man, who could easily exist as the damaged portions of any of us.