05 October 2006

life is not the sum of its parts

We're only human.

The United States of Leland - Teenager Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) appears to have everything going for him, including a famous writer father (Kevin Spacey). So, what drove him to kill? It's up to Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a teacher who works with inmates, to discover the anger, frustration and fear lurking beneath Leland's otherwise unruffled surface. Before long, Pearl helps Leland discover the truth about the painful past that led him to his excruciating present.

Gosling was 23 when he starred in this role, and I get the feeling he was trying to go for "quietly thoughtful teenager" but my first impression was "mentally deficient 20-something" because of his obvious physical maturity blended with intentional gawkiness and the inability to enunciate or say the right thing. Going beyond that, the character Leland is a disappointed character. Not disappointing--disappointed. He's unable to look at people and things and situations without seeing misery behind it all, so most of the time he "blocks it out" ... but when he can't "block it out" anymore, he blacks out one day, and kills his ex-girlfriend's retarded brother, whom he sees as the most miserable person he knows. Most of the film I was thinking, Sociopath.

Most of the poor reviews I've seen for this film come from the so-called moral muddle we're presented with. It does leave a lot to think about, much of it unpleasant. There are a lot of moral and theological questionings going on here. Why man creates/needs G-d and the devil (or just good and evil, if you like), why people do bad things at all, how the way people see the universe can have adverse effects on their social behavior, etc. Of course, there's the whole confusion around Leland's murderous act--Was it drugs? A falling out with his girlfriend? Lack of parenting? What made him snap? In the end, we don't really have a clear picture as to the big 'why'--why Leland killed this harmless kid that he obviously doesn't dislike, whom he, in fact, walks home all the time and takes care of better than the boy's own siblings and parents. But then the character was very up-front with the fact that there would be no decent 'why'--bad things happen, people are bastards, and sometimes trying to see a reason is completely futile.

To the other characters, it can't be said that Leland isn't a product of his environment. His father is an emotionally distant, though extremely successful, author who hasn't seen his son for ten years (he sends him an airplane ticket to a different city around the world every year, but he's never there). His girlfriend is an upper-middle-class junkie in reform school who dumps him for another junkie. Her parents basically ignore her in favor of her college-bound sister and sister's boyfriend (who happens to live with them for weird family reasons of his own). The college-bound sister is dumping the boyfriend after her brother's murder, and the boyfriend gets himself arrested so that he can make it into prison in order to murder Leland. Really, nothing is right with any of these people, and you have to wonder if it was much better before Leland's day of blacking out.

The filming is very stark at certain points. While in jail, Leland is wearing an orange jumper; into flashback mode, he's often wearing a hooded sweatshirt of the same bright pylon-orange while everyone around him is in muted gray tones. Ultimately it creates an extreme contrast between Leland and the people surrounding him, physically and mentally.

Message? We're all "only human" and therefore inclined to do wretched things, but hopefully we have the mental capacity to look beyond the moments of misery and not go bat-shit crazy in despair. ***1/2

And then there was Lost, and the Jack, Sawyer, and Kate habitrails--aquarium, primate house, locker room.

I love that people on the boards have started calling the Others' leader Benry.

And what did they do to Kate that she needs antiseptic and looks like she's about to have a break-down in front of Sawyer?

And wasn't the Jack flash-back kind of Dullsville and useless? Yes, he and his wife got divorced, which we already knew must have happened; we still don't know why. Okay, maybe he's the reason his father went back to the bottle after that 50-day sobriety, and maybe that's why Christian was practicing medicine under the influence, and went to Sydney, and died. I still don't think we needed a whole episode for this back story to be told. I hope next week's is more satisfying.

Tonight: Jesus Camp, 7pm, Kendall Cinema, Cambridge, MA ... Because morbid curiosity drives me to free screenings of movies about religious zealots. The WASPs have determined that the best way to fight Middle Eastern religious zeal and the godless ways of the modern age is with their own brand of religious zeal. Fabulous. I can't wait to watch the freaks in action. You know I'll have tons to write about after the fact.

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