The United States of Leland is a terrible title for a movie. You can’t begin to say what it means, yet you can tell that the writer-director, Matthew Ryan Hoge, thinks it means something important. What’s utterly clear is that he’s jazzed at the prospect of whipping up yet another joylessly trendy indie portrait of the dark side of suburbia.
In a calm, sunstruck California town, Leland Fitzgerald, a shyly engaging high school student, commits a horrible crime, stabbing a retarded child to death. Why did he do it? Ryan Gosling, the young actor who portrayed the brilliant, tormented Jewish neo-Nazi in ”The Believer” with such searching and magnetic force, plays Leland as yet another passionate troublemaker, only this time with a benign, slightly goofy attitude of intellectual pride. Gosling, his hair standing up like Jughead’s, still has his quizzical squint. He makes Leland at once a mystery and a saint, a puckish, questing innocent who acts as if it’s perfectly obvious that he had a good reason to do what he did. He’s just not going to tell anyone.
As a director, Hoge may think that he’s bouncing off the mystery of the Columbine massacre, but Leland, a murderer who from what we can see has no violence inside him, isn’t really meant to be a convincing, new-style disaffected sociopath. He’s not even a chic cipher, like the killers-without-a-cause in Gus Van Sant’s ”Elephant.” Instead, he comes close to being a vessel for the filmmaker’s free-floating superiority. ”The United States of Leland” is tedious yet infuriating, since its characters, all of whom seem to have emerged from a screenwriter’s manual, are like exhibits in a thesis meant to indict the middle class for the crime of its collective dysfunction. Kevin Spacey, who is one of the film’s producers, plays Leland’s famous alcoholic-novelist father with far too much whiplash anger (he’s fun to watch, but not exactly convincing), and Don Cheadle, as the prison counselor who tries to crack Leland’s facade so that he can write a book about him, is just a bland opportunist. Nothing in the movie comes to life, least of all the prospect of a teenage killer who lectures everyone within earshot because he cares too much.