I noted that the official IMDb review refers to Leland as a sociopath. I believe that this diagnosis is manifestly and profoundly incorrect.
This is a movie about sadness, and about the ability of one particular teenage boy to see sadness in daily life, as it lies in wait around every corner, in advance of the unfolding of the lives that it impacts. A sociopath is a person who cannot empathize with others, and who, while understanding the difference between right and wrong, does not care about this difference. A sociopath is a subject who places himself or herself at the center of that subject's universe, with total disregard for the impact that the subject's actions have for those around him or her. One of the defining characteristics of a sociopath is that a true sociopath lacks the ability to feel empathy -- lacks the ability to feel that which others feel, and does not correlate changes in the moods of others as the result of that sociopath's actions with those actions. A sociopath CANNOT feel the pain of others, or understand that the pain of others is the result of the sociopath's own actions. A sociopath is a person who is not completely formed. A vital chunk is missing from the psychological and emotional makeup of a true sociopath, rendering the sociopath immune to "talking therapy" and other treatment modalities that involve human interaction and the exploration of personal feelings. Sociopathy is devastating, even when the subject is treated and placed in a highly structured environment aimed at containing the damage that the sociopath can do to others. Many sociopaths function more or less normally and never raise a blip on the radar of the criminal justice system, although they tend to leave a trail of emotional debris in their wakes.
Leland Fitzgerald is no sociopath. He is a person who is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to foresee what he considers to be the inevitable consequences and outcomes of human interactions. Leland literally sees sadness written into the eyes and faces of people around him, as he slowly assimilates and internalizes the philosophy that life is about loss, and that people slowly succumb to the inevitable and inexorable fact that, for want of a better metaphor, things fall apart. People who fall in love and who kiss and cuddle today turn into "pathetic" elderly couples. The electricity in the eyes of Leland's "mother" (a wealthy New York socialite who loves Leland and who invites him into the home that she shares with her family when he arrives in New York City, alone and determined to remain in the city at the age of 12) fades as she explains to him, on the last of his visits to New York City, that she learned that her husband had been cheating on her all the time, that she got a divorce, that having one's heart broken happens to everybody, and that such loss is an inevitable part of growing up. Her eyes still reflect light, but the electricity that once illuminated them is gone. This scene -- this explanation, late is it is in coming -- is crucial to understanding why Leland commits a seemingly savage, senseless crime (killing the retarded younger brother of his ex-girlfriend). Leland knows what lies ahead for this little boy -- a lifetime of unattainable goals, of being taught only words that signify danger, of never knowing the love of another human being, of never feeling such love, and of never connecting with another person. More than any other character in this movie, this little boy personifies everything that Leland sees as being inevitable and horrifying about the world. Leland's act -- killing this little boy -- is, for Leland, an act of mercy, committed because this was the one thing that he COULD do in a world in which actions cannot change outcomes. Whereas a true sociopath knows that actions can and do change outcomes but does not care about the harm inflicted on others by those actions, Leland does care. What most people view as a barbaric and horrifying act is, in Leland's eyes, the only decent thing that he can do to alleviate the suffering of just one person.
It would be comforting to be able to present this as an explanation of Leland's actions -- comforting, but incomplete. For in the end, "blame" for Leland's actions lies elsewhere. As is so often the case, there are no easy explanations and no balm to apply to the outraged soul. Why did Leland not learn something that even the most pessimistic people usually acknowledge -- that sometimes -- just sometimes -- people DO remain in love, and that relationships DO succeed, and that even the saddest lives ARE transformed? For Leland, there is no middle ground, no inner core to which he can retreat and regroup. There is only pain and sadness. One is tempted to blame his arrogant and thoroughly unpleasant father -- the brilliant writer (played by Kevin Spacey) -- for not being there at critical times during Leland's development, but given this man's thuggish nastiness, that may have been a blessing.
In the end, this viewer was moved by a tremendous sense of sadness. Why was Leland doomed to view the world through a veil of pessimism and depression? There is a maturity to Leland's character -- present, for example, when he repeatedly insists that nobody was to blame for his girlfriend breaking up with him -- that is both stoic and heartbreaking. Stoic, in that it is absolutely genuine, notwithstanding the heated denunciations of Leland's teacher. But heartbreaking, in that it is born not so much of understanding as of despair. Leland's indifference to his fate is merely a reflection of the utter certainty of his belief that nothing really matters. Nothing that he does can change his fate.
This is not sociopathy on display. This is, if anything, its polar opposite......
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