- Movie Rating -

Leaves of Grass (2009)

| May 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

When I finished watching a screening of Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass at Ebertfest this year, I wasn’t immediately sure what to think about it. Here is a movie that contains philosophy, family ties, Walt Whitman, marijuana, drug deals, twin brothers and the Jewish community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is at once a comedy, then a melodrama, then a violent action picture and a family drama, all inside two hours. What I was reminded of, once the fog had cleared, is how many pat, ordinary films run from point A to point B without ever taking any side roads. This is a movie that tries to be many things and succeeds.

The key to the film rests with a dual performance by Edward Norton as two brothers from the same geography but, in terms of lifestyle, are on two different planets. I will give away spoilers now, so if you don’t want to read further, feel free to stop here. The movie opens with a lecture by college professor Bill Kincaid (Norton) who is young, intelligent, good looking (his female students swoon) and is noted for writing several books. Added to that is the potential for his own department at Harvard.Years ago, Bill left his hometown of Little Dixie, Oklahoma for a collegiate life that existed as far away from his dysfunctional family as he could get. That world comes back into his life when he gets a phone call one day that his redneck twin brother Brady has died. Immediately, Bill gets on a plane and heads south to Little Dixie, Oklahoma to arrange the funeral. He is met back home by Brady’s best buddy Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson, in a very good performance). But, Bill soon finds that he’s been duped. Brady is very much alive and has brought his brother back home so he can pose as his double in order to get him out of trouble with the local drug kingpin.

Brady (also played by Norton) is a different from his brother in terms of lifestyle but not intellect. He is a pot dealer, so smart about his product that he has borrowed truck-loads of equipment from that drug kingpin in order to set up a sophisticated hothouse in his basement where he will develop a new kind of herb with more potency. The fact that he hasn’t paid the drug lord for the equipment is one of the reasons he’s in trouble, and the reason he has tricked Bill into coming home.

The film reminded me of Fargo in its manner of mixing comedy, drama, action and violence while never making his script trite or predictable. Like Fargo, here is another movie about a clean-cut man who enters into the criminal world without understanding how brutal and violent it really is.

Nelson’s script is generous, but the movie’s best treat is the two performances by Edward Norton. He creates Bill and Brady has two completely separate and distinct people. Bill is clean-cut, the kind of character that Norton always plays. Brady is something new from Norton, a street-smart redneck covered in tattoos with a thick Oklahoma accent. The script allows him a great degree of street smarts, he needs it to be in the business that he’s in, especially in a moment when he reveals a brilliant intellectual knowledge of herbology and biology. It helps us understand that under another set of circumstances, Brady might have been a teacher just like his brother.

Norton’s performance, it must be said, can’t be mentioned without giving credit to some amazing special effects, which not only allow Norton to appear as both characters in the same room, but often in the same place. There is a moment early in the film when Bill grabs Brady by the collar and shoves him against a wall. The effect is so seamless that I forgot until the scene was over that this was the same actor. The test is how long we can stay with the movie and forget that these are different characters played by he same actor.

This is a very difficult film to describe without giving too much away. It reveals its secrets slowly but it never feels planned or forced. That seems to be a quality all through Nelson’s work. He previously directed Eye of God and The Grey Zone, very different films that would seem to only be about one thing but contain multiple undercurrents. His films are always about more than they immediately seem. Leaves of Grass is about more than drugs and crime, it is about family, about trust, about deception, about survival, about loyalty and philosophy. This is one of those films that actually gets better the more you think about it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2009) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized