DVD Release Date:  October 12, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  April 3, 2010 (limited); April 16, 2010 (wider)
Rating:  R (for strong violence, pervasive language, and drug content)
Genre:   Dark Comedy
Run Time:  105 min.
Director:  Tim Blake Nelson
Cast:  Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss

"You ain't foolin' a soul by cleanin' up.  I know what you is."

A statement like that can hit you square between the eyes.  Even if it's not directed at you, it's impossible not to personally feel the implications.  It is, in many ways, a universal indictment—and depending on who says it and when you hear it, it can blindside your character.

Actor/writer/director Tim Blake Nelson's latest indie film Leaves of Grass has a few moments like that (that quote included).  They hit with impact in large part because of the extreme tonal swings this dark comedy takes.  Long stretches of absurd (and occasionally vulgar) farce are abruptly stopped by surprising acts of brutal violence.

The film shocks you, and that's intentional.  It's an ambitious approach, and likely too bipolar for mass audiences (or too offensive for conservative ones).  But for those with ears to hear, Leaves of Grass is a bizarre parable with lessons that would resonate with even the most staunch moralist.

Bill and Brady Kincaid are twin brothers (both played by Edward Norton), yet total opposites.  Bill is on a career fast track in the world of academia; he teaches classical philosophy at Brown University and is published (as one Southerner puts it, he's a "famous thaynker").  Brady is an Oklahoma-redneck marijuana kingpin.  The twain never meet … until an apparent tragedy pulls Bill back to his Tulsa home and into Brady's world of illegal drug trade.

Classic thematic archetypes (fish out of water, opposites clashing, family dysfunction, etc.) are used as a basis for some inspired comedy—mostly fueled by a spectacular dual-performance from Edward Norton as the twin brothers—and for much of the film's first act it would appear that a mix of broad laughs and intellectual musings are all the film is going for.  That is, until Bill crosses paths with one of the key players in the Oklahoma pot trade: the Jews (yes, that's meant to be funny).  That's when things get really weird.  And violent.

Like a Coen Brothers movie it clearly emulates (Fargo especially), filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson's tale of how greed corrupts mixes comedy with drama and then clashes them with thriller motifs, making for an idiosyncratic cinematic stew.  Yet Nelson's aesthetic approach is much more subdued.  While his dialogue and characters are thick with quirk, his barebones directorial approach is refreshing.  He trusts that his script and ensemble are so good (and they are) that he doesn't overcompensate as a director with style.

The script—with its twists, turns, and eventual descent—is a well-constructed risk-taker.  It boasts an endless flair with character-rich dialogue.  It has a colorful sense of place that includes Oklahoma's most bizarre pastime, "Okie Noodling" (look it up).  It's inventive in making a local rabbi a secret drug lord.  And it's also philosophical, earnestly pondering headier concepts like purpose, moral relativity, free will, God, destiny, the hubris of control, and the looming reality of judgment.

The title itself is taken from poet Walt Whitman's lifetime work of the same name.  At a time when poetry embraced religious and spiritual imagery, Whitman's collection was deemed offensive (even obscene) as it focused on the body and the material world. 

Many would likewise characterize Nelson's film—which includes profane language and explicit, bloody violence—in the same way.  Like Whitman's work before it, this Leaves of Grass uses it all to make a broader, foundational point about the condition of human nature.  But unlike Whitman's work that celebrated humanity, Nelson's reveals its worst natures.

The all-star cast is key in bringing balance to this heightened reality while still relishing in the broad comedic milieu.  For Edward Norton, it's a tour de force.  The Kincaid twins are two completely different characters in every way, and in every way they are fully realized—even, at times, while sharing the screen (through cheap but effective movie magic).  It's an actor's dream, and Norton makes it entertaining yet dimensional by giving both Bill and Brady flavorful personalities while still anchoring them with complex intellects and motivations.  Norton has had an impressive career (Primal Fear, American History X, and many others), and this film offers the best expression of his full range.

Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) costars as Brady's right-hand hick in the drug trade, Keri Russell (TV's Felicity) is Bill's surprising intellectual match and love interest, and Oscar-winners Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking, Thelma & Louise) round out the cast with flamboyant performances of their own—Dreyfuss especially who, as the Rabbi Tulsa Drug Lord, makes the most of his brief screen time.

Despite boasting a sharp and consistent wit and laugh-out-loud moments, Leaves of Grass is not for the faint of heart.  Ultimately, this is a graphic morality tale about the extreme lengths some people will go to for just a little bit of money, the quickly escalating and unpredictable consequences of greed, and the fatal ends of trying to control situations within sinful pursuits that we never really could control to begin with.

And when people finally reap what they've sown, it leaves them deeply broken (along with the innocent others that find themselves in the wake).  Yet through the carnage, the final philosophical conclusion that emerges is one that embraces both healing and responsibility ...

"We break the world.  Help repair it."

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Alcoholic drinks are consumed.  Marijuana cigarettes are smoked.
  • Language/Profanity:  Numerous uses of R-rated profanities and a few crude sexual innuendos (such as a reference to oral sex).
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A female college student begins to disrobe and jumps a college professor in his office (no nudity).
  • Violence:  A few men are brutally stabbed and killed (three in one scene); very bloody.  Other bloody and graphic acts of physical violence between people as they fight.  An arrow is shot right through the middle of someone's torso.

 

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit 
www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.