Film

The son also euthanizes

The United States of Leland is a morally repellent mercy-killing treatise

Rarely have I seen a movie displays such a yawning gulf between its own
odious themes and its flattering, sensitive-soul image of itself as
writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge’s The United States of
Leland
. Hoge must be some kind of hustler: after persuading
Kevin Spacey to produce the picture in addition to playing a small supporting
role, he was able to fill every significant part in the film with, if not a
star, then at least a familiar indie face: his large ensemble cast includes
Don Cheadle, Lena Olin, Martin Donovan, Jena Malone, Ann Magnuson, Kerry
Washington, Chris Klein, Sherilyn Fenn, Michelle Williams and, as the Donnie
Darko-like lead character Leland P. Washington, Ryan Gosling (the young
Canadian actor who caused a sensation among critics if not audiences with his
work in The Believer).

Once again, Gosling is playing an affectless teenage killer, but this time
it’s one we’re supposed to feel sympathy for—even though
he’s stabbed his ex-girlfriend Becky’s handicapped brother Ryan
to death (it’s not clear if the kid is retarded or autistic),
we’re told it’s because poor Leland feels an overabundance of
empathy for all the sadness in the world. Never mind that Ryan doesn’t
appear to be suffering emotionally or in any kind of pain—Hoge takes
the condescending notion that autistic and retarded people are a burden on
their families and everyone around them and swallows it whole. He spends no
time trying to understand Ryan as a person; all his energy is focussed on
soft-spoken, tender-hearted Leland and his sad inability to stop himself from
feeling too much.

Hoge apparently was inspired to make the film as a result of his
experiences as a teacher in a juvenile prison, and indeed, the film’s
other principal character is Pearl Madison (Cheadle), a prison teacher who
recognizes Leland’s intelligence and tries to understand what could
have motivated him to take a human life. (Leland’s father Albert,
played by Spacey, is a famous literary figure and although Pearl genuinely
wants to help Leland, he’s also a struggling writer who senses that a
book about Albert’s homicidal son could be just the ticket to finally
landing a publishing deal.) Pearl’s decision to cheat on his estranged
wife with a pretty new secretary at the prison is just one of a whole tangle
of soap opera plot threads that run through the film—Becky is trying to
kick her heroin addiction, while Becky’s sister Julie is pulling away
from her adoring live-in boyfriend Allen. Scenes showing Leland’s
parents and Ryan’s parents coping numbly with their grief round out the
film.

But I found myself spending more time trying to figure out how all these
characters were related to each other than empathizing with their
unhappiness—Hoge’s confusingly structured script certainly takes
its sweet time telling you which family everyone belongs to. (As Roger Ebert
has noted, it takes Hoge several scenes to establish that Becky and Julie are
even sisters.) And since the entire film has been pitched at exactly the same
anesthetized, TV-movie tone, with characters wandering around tasteful beige
suburban homes and mumbling about the sorrowful weight of the world they
carry on their shoulders, it’s hard to get too worked up about the pain
any of the characters are feeling. Ironically, the film turns you into kind
of an anti-Leland, feeling too little instead of too much. And the whole
premise of the movie—that Leland is such a sad, wise little angel that
killing Ryan becomes an act of mercy (“emotional euthanasia,” the
press kit calls it)—is the height of adolescent self-regard.
We’re meant to think that Leland’s such a pure soul that even
when he kills a helpless kid it only makes him holier than ever. He’s a
martyr to all our numbed-out suburban emotions, a mercy-killing
post-Columbine saint.

And if there’s one thing movies definitely don’t need these
days, it’s another saintly, misunderstood hero. Or another pretentious
indie director like Matthew Ryan Hoge. V

The United States of Leland Written and directed by
Matthew Ryan Hoge • Starring Ryan Gosling, Don Cheadle, Jena Malone,
Chris Klein and Kevin Spacey • Opens soon

Leave a Comment