You have not known what you are; you have slumber'd upon yourself all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in mockeries, what is their return?)
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you...


-Walt Whitman, 'Leaves of Grass'


Keri Russell's character quotes the above passage to Edward Norton's buttoned down professor in Tim Blake Nelson's new film, 'Leaves of Grass.' Norton stars as a pair of twins: Billy, a classics professor who has abandoned his Oklahoma roots for the Ivy League; and Buddy, a small-time pot grower who basks in the clichéd hockey-haired idiocy of his hometown. The film takes off when the former returns home for the first time in years when his brother tricks him into helping to take down a local drug lord.


You have not known what you are; you have slumber'd upon yourself all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in mockeries, what is their return?)
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you...


-Walt Whitman, 'Leaves of Grass'


Keri Russell's character quotes the above passage to Edward Norton's buttoned down professor in Tim Blake Nelson's new film, 'Leaves of Grass.' Norton stars as a pair of twins: Billy, a classics professor who has abandoned his Oklahoma roots for the Ivy League; and Buddy, a small-time pot grower who basks in the clichéd hockey-haired idiocy of his hometown. The film takes off when the former returns home for the first time in years when his brother tricks him into helping to take down a local drug lord.

Janet (Russell) uses the poetry of Walt Whitman to explain to Billy that beneath his stodgy exterior, his vibrant and unkempt southern roots are visible, whether he wants them to be or not. But the verse can also be interpreted as actor-writer-director Nelson's Valentine message to his hometown of Oklahoma. With 'Leaves,' he declares that the backwoods stereotypes surrounding Oklahoma are mockeries and that, with this film, he has pursued his home state where no one else has (or at least no one else on celluloid).

Nelson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and left to study classics at Brown University. Filmgoers may recognize him as Delmar from 'O Brother Where Art Thou,' but he has also appeared in a number of blockbusters ('The Incredible Hulk,' 'Syriana') and directed a handful of films. 'Leaves' is his sixth directorial effort and appears at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.


Watching 'Leaves' is like baby-sitting the offspring of 'Adaptation' and 'O Brother Where Art Thou.' Nelson unites the playful humour of Charlie Kaufman with the subtle intellect of the Coen Brothers. The film subverts the stereotypical hillbilly by presenting intelligent, articulate Oklahoma locals. The only actor on the set of 'O Brother' to have read its source book, 'The Odyssey,' Nelson has explored the positive and negative qualities of growing up in Oklahoma and maturing in the Ivy League. He can be found poking fun at the circular arguments of academia as well as the stupidity of petty criminals.

This is not the first film of Nelson's to be tied to Oklahoma; he also wrote and directed 'Eye of God' (1997), which was produced there. He quotes Alfred Uhry (screenwriter of 'Driving Miss Daisy') when explaining why the state figures so strongly in his work. "Find a tiny, tiny corner of the universe that you know really well, and write about that," Uhry said. "If you write specifically, that's how you mine greater truths."

The greater truth of 'Leaves' can be found in the book of poetry that lends the film its title. Walt Whitman's most celebrated book of verse, 'Leaves of Grass,' is a feast for the senses, which was written at a time when poets left the physical world by the wayside. Whitman was influenced by the transcendentalist movement, which abandoned empiricism in favour of intuition. Nelson uses Billy and Buddy to embody transcendentalism (the former) and Whitman-esque living (the latter). It is only when Buddy dies that Billy can transcend his thoughts and bask in something as simple as the feel of getting drenched in the rain.