The United States of Leland is Sundance twaddle of the highest degree (yes, it’s worse than Pieces of April). You know the type: self-conscious, mostly pointless examinations of fringe folk coping with travesty and alienation in the suburbs of America, all played for woe-is-us, universal gravitas. Possibly the most egregious indie of the last five years, this self-important creation casts Ryan Gosling as some kind of social retard (sporting Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie Darko hairdo and girlfriend) accused of killing a mentally handicapped boy. Why? I don’t know, and you sure as hell won’t find out by film’s end—which is more or less the point of this clueless, Camus-light (make that, extra-light) examination of “why we do the things we do” (insert eye-roll here, not because the film is pretentious and irrelevant, which it is, but because who actually makes movies for the sole purpose of examining “why we do the things we do” without any sort of existential kick or payoff?). Writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge peeks in on a small community of people whose lives are just exploding. There’s no build-up (like there is in, say, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, to which Hoge is obviously indebted): Becky is still on heroin (you will ask, “Why?”), and this dude, Allen (Chris Klein), is living in her house (again, “Why?”), and seems to have some kind of history with this blond girl, Julie (Michelle Williams), who may be related to Becky, expect she isn’t ever really referred to as the sister of the dead retarded boy, so who the fuck knows who she is? When Leland (Gosling) goes to juvie, a teacher (Don Cheadle) tries to figure out why he “did what he did.” We want to know too, except we never find out—not because someone gets to Leland before he can tell us, but because Hoge seems to think it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what’s more insufferable: the incessant, nails-on-chalkboard pitch of Gosling’s trite narration (“There’s another thing to learn about tears,” he says during one of his anecdote-heavy, adolescent observations) or the fact that no one in the film has a natural conversation. “You know what’s the thing about earthquakes?” says Leland. No, I don’t, and I really don’t care. And neither do the guys at the end of Short Cuts.
Both image and sound are lovely and unassuming, but every frame of the film and every syllable of Ryan Gosling’s narration is enough to cut one’s wrist. That can’t be a good thing, right?
As self-centered as its title, The United States of Leland is-to quote the great Brittany Murphy-"music to cut your wrists" to.