In prison awaiting trial for the murder of a retarded boy, an articulate, too-sensitive-for-this-world teenager (Ryan Gosling) renames his social science workbook “The United States of Leland” and fills its pages with an attempt to tell his story. He can’t remember much – the details of the actual killing are so foggy it seems at one point that writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge must intend us to suspect that he’s been framed – but he knows how he felt. The United States of Leland hooks the audience with the promise of seeing this frail, sweet boy turn vicious thug by film’s end. There’s nothing that prurient here: the film is a moody watercolor, unformed and hazy, with the violent act refracted and sublimated into a seventeen year old’s lesson in philosophy. If Holden Caufield had a gun and smiled more often, this could be his story.
Hoge structures the story in intricate flashbacks interwoven with voice-over from Leland’s journal. He’s able to keep writing because he’s being exploited by his prison teacher, Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a failed writer who smells a novel in Leland’s case. (It’s telling that Hoge won’t nail down what could lead Leland from simple alienation to murder but takes a few minutes to allow Pearl to explain the origin of his first name.) Madison’s ambition is complicated by the fact that he is barred from speaking to Leland outside of class as well as by Leland’s father Albert, a great novelist with a nasty reputation (Kevin Spacey), who’s shown up for the trial after years living abroad.
Leland met his victim, Ryan (Michael Welch), through Ryan’s older sister, Becky (Jena Malone). Becky’s been placed in a private school after running away with a drug dealer and she responds to Leland’s ingenuous warmth. They become good friends, though she remains too attached to her jailed dealer boyfriend to go further with Leland.
Becky has a complicated home life. Her parents allow her older sister Julie’s boyfriend, Allen (Chris Klein), to live in the house, and at seventeen he’s already Mom’s favorite in-law. She dotes on this gentle, puppyish boy who wants to go off to college with her daughter, who for her part wants out of a relationship that feels clammily incestuous. No one seems to believe that Becky has reformed (indeed, in her first scene she’s shooting up in her bedroom), though no one says as much, and when her boyfriend is released from jail, the family tensions come to a head.
For his part, Leland is completely estranged from his father. Dad buys off his guilt by giving Leland plane tickets each summer with the implicit understanding that they won’t really meet up. Leland gets to roam New York City unimpeded by adults instead. Spacey delivers his most toothless creep here; though he generates most of the film’s tension, the sly, coiling intelligence of his best work is missing. When Pearl comes to understand his motivations (why would this absentee father suddenly appear when his son’s been arrested for an atrocity?), it’s less of a shock than a given, a surprise the audience understood in his first appearance.
The film’s best scenes take place in the prison library, as Pearl grills Leland. Hoge carefully undermines Pearl from the start, so that his pose as Leland’s benefactor, however sincere, is compromised. In the film’s smartest touch, Leland understands this well before Pearl himself does. There are several moments were Gosling channels Spacey’s better performances, encouraging the sense that Leland isn’t being exploited at all. Instead, he’s using Pearl for his own purposes, setting him up for something. In a film that insists on the ingenuous purity of its murderous protagonist, these moments are enormously suggestive, and for a while the story seems poised to leap into a startling new direction. It never does.
In its way, The United States of Leland is a model independent feature: modestly scaled but ambitious, well acted, intelligent. Yet it’s a fundamentally cautious piece. Every character is given a scene or two to explain and “round out” their motivations, with the effect of dampening any possibility of surprise. (When Pearl, whose girlfriend has been away for weeks, meets a pretty receptionist, it’s obvious that they will sleep together and that he will regret it. She’s a plot device and nothing more, in the film only to make points about Pearl.) It’s tidy in all the least important ways, with all the questions that don’t demand answers explained and all those that do left open. In Elephant, Gus Van Sant took on a similarly inexplicable event and also refused to provide grand answers where none exist. But Van Sant made his refusal of pat answers a structural device, and the film had none of the trappings of the well-made film: everything about it was evocative and open-ended, each shot posing questions for the audience. Hoge explains it all for us; everything, that is, except what we want to know.