"I know what they want from me," says Leland P Fitzgerald. "They want a reason." But reasons are hard to come by in The United States Of Leland, an unsatisfying tale of a teenager who stabs a mentally disabled boy. Leland (Ryan Gosling) is packed off to juvenile prison for his crime, and there he forms a relationship with teacher Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle). But Pearl has his own agenda; if he can discover Leland's true motivations, he could have a bestseller on his hands.
As disconnected and vague as its morally ambiguous hero, The United States Of Leland throws up more questions than it can answer. Drawing on his experience in the juvenile justice system, writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge has fashioned a story that tackles heavy issues of right and wrong, but finally settles on the trite idea that killers are human beings too.
"THE CAST WORKS OCCASIONAL WONDERS WITH THE DOUR MATERIAL"
Leland, played by Gosling as a blank-eyed innocent, comes on all Hannibal Lecter with his teacher mentor, forcing him to confront his own moral failings (paltry as they are compared to Leland's apparently motiveless murder). On the sidelines, the families of killer and victim struggle to make sense of the crime. A heavyweight indie cast that includes Kevin Spacey as Leland's estranged father works occasional wonders with the dour material. But the director's elliptic approach can cause confusion; it's often hard to tell how one character is related to another.
Shot in a self-consciously lo-fi tone that's reminiscent of faded holiday photographs, and overloaded with trendy alt-rock, Leland lacks substance to motivate its style.