(director/writer: Matthew Ryan Hoge; cinematographer: James Glennon; editor: Jeff Betancourt; music: Jeremy Enigk; cast: Don Cheadle (Pearl Madison), Ryan Gosling (Leland P. Fitzgerald), Kevin Spacey (Albert T. Fitzgerald), Lena Olin (Marybeth Fitzgerald), Chris Klein (Allen Harris), Jena Malone (Becky Pollard), Kerry Washington (Ayesha), Martin Donovan (Harry Pollard), Ann Magnuson (Karen Pollard), Michele Williams (Julie), Michael Welch (Ryan Pollard), Sherilyn Fenn (Mrs. Calderon), Nick Kokich (Kevin), Ron Canada(Elden); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Kevin Spacey/Bernie Morris/Palmer West/Jonah Smith; Paramount Classics; 2003)

“A muddled and uninteresting psychological melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ryan Gosling plays Leland, the brutal killer of his junkie ex-girlfriend Becky’s (Jena Malone) retarded brother Ryan, someone he had recently befriended. He offers no explanation for his actions while in a juvenile detention center awaiting trial, even though there’s societal pressure to find out why a white boy of privilege did such an irrational act. Leland states, “I know what they want from me–they want a reason, something they can tie up with a nice bow and bury in the backyard.” Writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge (” Self Storage”) never tells us why, instead has his suburban Arizona protagonist do a poor Donnie Darko character imitation and couches the insufferably bleak story on Leland being his one-dimensional self while in custody. Hoge lets Leland go off saying shrill pseudo-philosophical tidbits about the Devil, God, seeing things others can’t, the meaning of love, how relationships are doomed to end in tears and expounding some kind of half-baked existentialism. The result is a muddled and uninteresting psychological melodrama which was about as pretentious and daffy as the Leland character. Hoge belittles the murder story into one about being human only means making mistakes. All the characters constantly talk, mostly talking rubbish.

The film is overloaded with unimportant supporting characters such as Leland’s unhappy divorced mom (Lena Olin) and the protective and over sensitive Allen (Chris Klein) who is the boyfriend of Julie, Becky’s older sis. The clean-cut school athlete moved in with the Pollards (Martin Donovan and Ann Magnuson) when his mom died. These superficially drawn characters act anguished over the murder and serve to pad the thin story with their melodramatic reactions, muddling the narrative even further. One of the main characters is Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), an aspiring writer who teaches a writing/history class that Leland is in. He befriends Leland after he finds out his father is the internationally famous novelist Albert T. Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey) and sees this as an opportunity to use the kid to write a great book, though he does show an obsessive concern for the youngster. Pearl allows the bright kid to keep a journal to express his thoughts, which they both later discuss (which proves to be the heart of the film). The film goes off on a tangent as the cold-hearted, self-absorbed, absentee father and manipulative teacher disagree on what’s best for Leland, and if Pearl has a right to write a book about him. This meaningless feud soon becomes either just as important or more so than the murder story.

By filming out of chronological order and repeating the murder scene with flashbacks, the film hopes to impress the viewer that this inexplicable stabbing in broad daylight in a public park cannot be understood in a normal way. Hoge aims to tell the killer’s side by not explaining his motivations but by showing him interacting with other misery-stricken peers in his upper-middle-class setting. The problem with this self-conscious meditative approach to suburban dysfunction was in all the shallow observations uncovered by Gosling in his listless voice-over and heart-to-hearts with the ambitious teach. It offers the intellectually bankrupt statement by the killer “that we do bad things because we want to or have to,” which unfortunately does not make the senseless murder understood with any more clarity. The only thing that was clear to me was in how unappealing and hollow was the film.

The United States of Leland Poster