It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Tim Blake Nelson's "Leaves of Grass" is some kind of sweet, wacky masterpiece. It takes all sorts of risks, including a dual role with Edward Norton playing twin brothers, and it pulls them off. It is certainly the most intelligent, philosophical and poetic film I can imagine that involves five murders in the marijuana-dealing community of Oklahoma and includes John Prine singing "Illegal Smile."
Sometimes you can't believe your luck as a movie unfolds. There is a mind behind it, joyful invention, obvious ambition. As is often the case, I had studiously avoiding reading anything at all about "Leaves of Grass" before going to see the movie, although I rather doubted it would be about Walt Whitman. What I did know is that the actor Tom Blake Nelson has written and directed three films I enormously admired: "Eye Of God" (1997), "O" (2001) and "The Grey Zone" (2001), all three dealing in a concrete dramatic way with important questions: Religion, redemption, race, the Holocaust. And that the actor Edward Norton has never agreed to appear in a film he didn't believe he had reason to respect.
The film opens with Norton as a philosopher named Bill Kincaid giving a lecture on Socrates to a packed classroom of star-struck students at Brown. It's a measure of Nelson's writing and Norton's acting that this lecture isn't a sound bite but is allowed to continue until the professor develops his point, and it's an interesting one. Only as I think back do I realize what an audacious way that is to open a movie about the drug culture of rural Oklahoma.
Spoilers in this paragraph. Kincaid is on the fast track. He's published books, is a crossover intellectual superstar, is offered a chance to open his own department at Harvard. Then he gets a telephone call telling him his twin brother Brady is dead. He has long since severed his old family ties, but he flies home for the funeral to Little Dixie, Oklahoma, and is met at the airport by his twin's best friend (Nelson). As it turns out, Brady is not dead, and the story was a lie designed to lure him back home for two purposes. One is to force him to see his mother, a 1960s pothead played by Susan Sarandon. The other is to act as his double to establish an alibi while Brady goes up to Tulsa for a meeting with the region's dominant marijuana dealer Tug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss).