The so-so state of ‘Leland’: Ambiguity drives the plot tedious

    Writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge of “The United States of Leland” has stated that with this film, he attempts to get away from exploiting the criminal by minimizing the violence and instead focus on the period after a crime has been committed. After teaching at a Juvenile Detention Center and gaining firsthand knowledge about the institution and its inhabitants, he felt compelled to trace the fictional experience of a particularly unlikely juvenile delinquent.

    In the film, Leland P. Fitzgerald (played by the charismatic Ryan Gosling) is a clever, withdrawn, thoughtful young man who seems incapable of inflicting pain. He even has trouble expressing anger after the girl he loves, the heroin-shooting Becky Pollard (Jena Malone), breaks up with him. However, Leland also commits a heinous act of violence, the murder of Becky’s defenseless autistic brother, Ryan. As Ryan’s despondent family grieves, and Leland’s parents refuse to accept their son’s “mistake,” the jail teacher and aspiring writer Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle) takes on the task of searching for the reason behind Leland’s deed.

    Cheadle plays Pearl as a straightforward interrogator who casually cheats on his girlfriend and is initially more interested in furthering his writing than in reaching his subject. For the most part, his character just fades into the framework.

    Gosling, however, gives a breakthrough performance, taking on another complex, conflicted character that recalls his stirring portrayals in “The Believer” and “The Slaughter Rule.” He seamlessly latches onto Leland’s melancholy state of mind, and his contradictory bottled up emotions. The rest of the cast is likewise stirring. Malone, who has had time to sharpen the messed-up girl role in “Life as a House” and “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” once again fits the mold. Chris Klein subtly captures the essence of a helpful boy overwhelmed by inner rage. Lena Olin and Kevin Spacey pulsate with energy as Leland’s parents, and Martin Donovan is compelling as a grieving father.

    The film raises several questions, particularly regarding the characters’ impulses, yet it provides very few answers. The motive for murder remains unclear. This state of ambiguity makes the film interesting because it inspires different interpretations, but at the same time it causes it to become somewhat tiresome and difficult to digest. The plotline of a too-good criminal who teaches Pearl about life and love is a stretch, the other subplots are a bit too contrived, and at different moments, some characters almost become caricatures.

    Yet, with all of its faults, “The United States of Leland” has a few poignant thoughts to offer. It is entertaining to watch some of its actors delve into deep emotional reserves, even if they often have little to say.

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