The United States of Leland (2003)

After 2001’s The Believer, I took a strong interest in Ryan Gosling. I can no longer remember how I stumbled on that movie, but I definitely showed it around and have a poster I took about to be discarded from a rental place at the time, which still resides on my wall (leading to fears that it will be misinterpreted, in light of its imagery and my rather Aryan appearance). Gosling really seemed to take off in the great public conscious after The Notebook, though, which I’ve never seen, but this, too, predated that–possibly the reason it was lost, it seems to the majority. When I first saw the packaging for this film, it was instantly intriguing–Gosling accompanied by Jena Malone, Kevin Spacey and Don Cheadle? Really? Sign me up. Eventually. Eventually, though, is now.

Leland P. Fitzgerald (Gosling) is a 16 year old who has just been arrested for the murder of Ryan Pollard (Michael Welch), the “retarded kid” who happens to be the younger brother of his girlfriend Becky (Malone). In juvenile detention, he catches the eye of aspiring writer (“You’re not a writer unless people are reading your shit”) Pearl Madison (Cheadle), who smells a book–as well as a kid who doesn’t seem to belong with the rest, who are all more open and almost proud of their crimes in his “Special Handling” class–the class that stays locked up because their crimes were too heinous to let them run free or have outdoor exercise. Leland’s father Albert (Spacey) is relatively estranged, an accomplished writer with a reputation as an asshole, who discovers his son was arrested from the front of a newspaper. Also affected by this crime are Becky’s older sister Julie (Michelle Williams) and her boyfriend Allen Harris (Chris Klein), and their parents Harry (Martin Donovan–who for some reason my brain was screaming, “This guy is usually a sleaze!” about upon sight–though I can’t find the credit that gave me this impression) and Karen (Ann Magnuson).

This is a rather ballsy movie–it is looking at the strange way humans deal with problems, horrible occurrences, the actions of others and their own less-than-pleasant actions in retrospect. It pokes at the low-level excuses like “I made a mistake” or “I’m only human.” Around Leland we see others doing less obvious, blatantly harmful things–Becky takes refuge from the world in a controlling drug-dealer of an older guy who has her hooked on (presumably, at least) heroin, Pearl sleeps around on his distant girlfriend, Albert wrestles a bit with his choices as a father and so on. Most of them refer to these things as “mistakes” or happenstance regarding their being “human.” Luckily, none seem melodramatic–even Becky’s drug use (wow, heroin?!) is carried off in a believable way. Strangely, in all of this it is somehow Leland who seems to be most honest. Pearl struck me as a selfish, egocentric, self-excusing jerk–as did most of the characters. Only Leland seemed interested in others as well as himself–but it was eventually shown to illustrate the way people in general are. Pearl is not far off from most people, nor are the rest–their actions may be exaggerated in a way for effect (Pearl’s arguments for his affair, for instance) but they are not too far off from actual events in the world that occur daily and are cast off as meaningless, when they are far from it. Leland, alone, though, examines how the actions of others are based in their feelings as fellow human beings–when Becky leaves him for her drug-dealer, he says he doesn’t blame her–some may say that he is an unreliable narrator, but I’ve always loathed that term. As has been noted–most recently in my experience by, of all people, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters–memory is inherently coloured and unreliable. There’s a certain arrogance in claiming, I’ve found, to know the exact circumstances of an event; everyone always seems to have a conflicting interpretation, and for one to claim theirs is more accurate, are they somehow a higher level of being than this other human? So I take faith in Leland meaning it when he says he doesn’t blame Becky. He doesn’t take vengeance on her, or any vengeance at all. When we finally get a glimpse of his motivation, it is thoroughly misguided but purely intentioned–and aren’t most things? But he will admit that he did wrong–he does say that he made a mistake, but he does not just call it a mistake and try to move on. He stabs himself to see what it feels like, and this seems to be part of his realization–he seems a little out of touch with the basics of the world like this sometimes.

It’s a very fascinating look, but it’s worth noting that Matthew Ryan Hoge occasionally seems to fail to get his writing and direction to congeal–bits and pieces seem incongruously wordy, like the first scene with Allen and Julie, where the affection of their relationship seems like a cheap romance of sorts (not a bodice-ripping one, a fantasized fairytale kind), or occasionally Cheadle can’t quite get the excess of words he spills on the phone to his girlfriend to sound quite like an actual conversation, and they end up more like a monologue. I think the blame for this does not lie with Cheadle, though. It’s a mouthful of words, and his performance is excellent–like all of them even Klein, who strikes fear into the heart of my sense of taste, having been in two American Pie movies. They all put these excesses of words into place as best they can and usually conceal the pretentiousness of some of the comments with their skill, it just occasionally ends up too much for believability to bear. Still, Hoge does an amazing job of managing to make all of the characters sympathetic in some respect, and of helping us to understand both their motivations and see this understanding as a way of realizing our own faulty justifications and excuses.

Damn, though, this movie was depressing. I had to just go to sleep after watching it when I couldn’t find the right person to talk to about it.


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