The United States of Leland Movie Review
Maybe I've seen too many Gyllenhaal movies, but Leland's slightly hunched posture and quizzical facial expression, indicative of a familiar detached dreaminess, recalls indie prince Jake constantly, right down to the casting of go-to indie girlfriend Jena Malone as Becky (who acted alongside Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko). To be fair, I wasn't thinking of Gyllenhaal for every second Gosling was on screen. Sometimes I was musing over his unfortunate resemblance to Screech from TV's Saved by the Bell.
I don't blame Gosling, who doesn't seem like a bad actor so much as adrift in a role that must've been difficult for him to nail down. Leland makes (too many) pithy observations starting with "people always say" in some scenes, and seems borderline autistic in others; the lack of connection between these aspects of his character marks the difference between intrigue and genuine fascination. This lead character is a self-made challenge for writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge; it's understandable that he never meets it, but less so why he wrote it in the first place.
If Leland was the enigma at the center of perfectly modulated drama, this might not matter. It does, though, when most of the movie only makes it to that first level -- interest and involvement, not enlightenment. Hoge is like a moderately talented musician tackling an ambitious symphony, hitting perfect and bum notes in equal measure. The way the camera catches Michelle Williams's little exhale after pretending to be asleep in front of her well-meaning boyfriend (Chris Klein), for example, is beautifully observed. But these nice touches keep jostling up against moments that feel false: Would a teenager who just shot heroin really spring so immediately to attention to cover her tracks, as if hiding a cigarette or a joint?
Yet I was never bored with The United States of Leland -- if Hoge is a little too attached to his characters and the actors who embody them, it's understandable. The serially underused Don Cheadle has a strong showcase here as Pearl Madison, a prison teacher and "aspiring writer" who takes an interest in Leland. It's a gesture of both compassion (anyone else in the position do so is too traumatized, mystified, or paralyzed) and selfishness; it's clear from the start that he, as another character puts it, "smells a book." Pearl talks to Leland in off-the-record one-on-one sessions, part counselor and part journalist, allowing Leland to talk about himself, trying to get at the impossible "why" of the horrible crime. One of the screenplay's best qualities is the way it shows Pearl's undeniable weaknesses as a human being, even as he reaches out to Leland in ways others cannot.
Other cast members make an impression, notably Kevin Spacey, back from his early-aughts tour of schlock, as Leland's superstar novelist of an absentee father. In his too-short and too-isolated screentime, Spacey seems to be saying: Look, I'm stealing scenes for a good cause again. The film's women are less lucky; Malone is only half-believable--sort of a fair-weather junkie. Williams isn't given much to do, and the two of them barely register as sisters, let alone sisters whose younger brother has just been murdered.
I suppose Hoge would like his film to speak for itself, but Leland, like its title character, talks a lot without necessarily saying much. The elliptical (Leland's psychological state) and the boilerplate (the faltering relationship between Williams and Klein) don't mix well here. If your audience is expected to grapple with how a seemingly sweet kid could commit murder, shouldn't "why make this film?" come with comparative ease?