193 – The United States of Leland

Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) has committed an unspeakable crime, the stabbing of the retarded younger brother of his ex-girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone). No one, least of all Leland himself, can explain why he’s done what he's done, whether the act was premeditated or spontaneous, done out of hatred or love.

In the detention center, Leland meets Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a onetime novel writer who sees in Leland’s case a second opportunity. But Pearl also wants to understand Leland’s motivation and takes him under his wing as a confidante in the prison.

The film jumps from the past to the present several times, often allowing the past to act as a context to the present, and vice versa. Writer/director Matthew Ryan Hodge shows how Leland’s crime – and the events leading up to it – affect the people in his life, from Becky to her family to Leland’s mother (Lena Olin) and estranged father (Kevin Spacey) to Allen (Chris Klein), a young man who is staying with Becky’s family after the death of his own mother.

The chief asset in the movie is Gosling, who is perfectly cast as the 15-year-old pseudopsychopath. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, Gosling’s Leland just exists; he shows little emotion during the film, but instead his expressions belie an ocean of guilt, sadness, love, and rage.

Each of the main actors offered perhaps their best work to date, save Spacey (who’s not exactly a novice). Special praise is due to Malone and Klein, two young performers who are better known for lighthearted comedy fare than the heavy drama of this movie.

Another huge benefit in terms of the story is that none of the characters is flawless; none are heroes out to save the day. This is simply not a black-and-white movie.

The United States of Leland: ***1/2

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