“The United States of Leland” has a difficult story to tell, but first-time director Matthew Ryan Hoge tries so hard to be nice to all his characters and be on everyone’s side that the message becomes murky and diluted. Here’s a movie in which no one is hateable, not even Leland P. Fitzgerald, a 17-year-old boy arrested for murdering the mentally handicapped younger brother of his girlfriend. From start to finish, “The United States of Leland” softly tiptoes around Leland and everyone else. What in another movie would have been turned into an angry, fist-raising tragedy is portrayed here curiously in peaceful colors. Leland (excellently played by Ryan Gosling) himself is like that: a calm, emotional flatliner. Asked why he did it, he finally says, in his sweet, soft-spoken way, “because of the sadness.”
Hoge worked as a teacher in a correctional institute for teenagers before writing the screenplay, which explains why the story grows distinctly closer to Leland after he has committed the crime and is imprisoned. The early scenes of Leland in his suburban home or when he’s hanging out with girlfriend Becky (Jean Malone) tend to lag and lose momentum, but once Leland is incarcerated, the frames become tighter, more focused and charged with quiet energy.
Hoge’s knowledge about the routines and customs inside the institute, his insights on the behavior of inmates are what give the story a gritty authenticity. Hoge knows the most brutal murderers come off as mild, “normal” people, and he inserts effective details to show this. Leland and a fellow prisoner (who’s black) call each other “Devil Worshipper” and “Black Demon-Lover” in cheerful, boyish voices between classes. They are extraordinary in their ordinariness, and the sight of them playing basketball in their prison uniforms (color-coded according to the gravity of their crimes) under a brilliant blue sky speaks much more than the flashbacks of Leyland’s attack on the younger boy.
While we still don’t know what made Leland do what he did, there are two characters who are inordinately fascinated by the events that led up to the murder. One is Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), Leland’s teacher at the correctional institution, who has aspirations of becoming a writer. The other is Leland’s estranged, divorcee father, Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey, who also produced the film), a famed writer who flies in from Europe when he hears the news.
Pearl can’t stay away from Leland and jeopardizes his job by attempting to have a few private conversations; Fitzgerald Sr. spends his entire time holed up in the bar nursing whiskeys. Pearl thinks Leland is the material he has been waiting for all his life, and after each conversation, he returns to his computer with renewed gusto. Albert, on the other hand, seems simply to be biding time until he can start pounding out his masterpiece, based on his son and his horrendous crime. When Pearl plucks up the courage to go and see Albert, his literary hero, the writer tells him to get lost and seek material elsewhere. Though their conversations are brief, they’re a sight to behold, as these two men circle the subject of Leland like growling dogs around a big bone.
For Leland, murder seems to be a state of mind, one that he can’t really remember well enough to describe. When asked by Pearl to “go back to that afternoon,” he just shrugs. However, he remembers in meticulous detail most other aspects of his life, such as his first meeting with Becky, how he took her brother home from school, the exchanges with Becky’s father (Martin Donovan plays a concerned and sensitive dad who is somehow powerless to prevent the tragedies that befall his family), and his relationship with a Mrs. Calderon (Sherilyn Fenn), whom he had been seeing in New York. Apparently, Fitzgerald Sr. had sent him a plane ticket every year, ostensibly for father and son to spend the holidays together, but really to send him off alone to various destinations. Leland never told his mother about this and spent the days alone in hotel rooms or, in the case of New York, at the home of Mrs. Calderon. Listening to Leland, Pearl is appalled at how the father had treated his son, but the writer in him is probably gleefully rubbing his hands together as this gold mine of material reveals itself.
Interestingly, the conflict between the two writers is what makes “The United States of Leland” an honest work: a teenage murder is just the kind of opportunity that writers pounce on, just because they’re, well, writers.
Any moral compass dissolves in the face of the writers’ overriding need to take events and turn them into easy-to-follow drama. In a way, they deserve as much blame as Leland does, but Hoge restrains himself from making outright accusations.
In the end, we’re left with trepid observations on teenage crime that’s triggered by teenage angst, and a couple of writers in a bar. They, at least, got to drown their sorrows in drinks.