What Is the Movie "Leaves of Grass" About?

by Joshua Wade
Edward Norton portrays twins on opposite sides of the law in

Edward Norton portrays twins on opposite sides of the law in "Leaves of Grass."

Valerie Macon/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"Leaves of Grass" is an American drama written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who also has a role in it. The story of identical twins who live on opposite sides of the law, "Leaves of Grass" stars actor Edward Norton as Bill and Brady Kincaid. Taking its name from the collection of poetry by Walt Whitman, the film explores a number of philosophical themes, including the dual nature of man and the dangers of drug life. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.


Bill Kincaid is a respected Brown University philosophy professor who has dedicated his life to his academic career. Soon after he is offered a teaching position at Harvard University, Bill is told that his identical twin brother, a drug dealer named Brady, has been killed and that he must return to his hometown of Little Dixie, Okla., to tend to the funeral. Once home, Bill finds that Brady is not dead, but rather that Brady has lured Bill home so that they can switch places. Brady must attend to a business deal in Tulsa, employing Bill as a decoy to fool the sheriff in Little Dixie, leaving Brady free from blame for the atrocities he commits in Tulsa.


Brady convinces Bill that he and his ex-con friend Bolger are trying to change their lives because of the upcoming birth of Brady's first child. Brady had borrowed money from a respected Jewish businessman in Tulsa, Pug Rothbaum. Brady tells Bill that he intends to negotiate a deal with Rothbaum by which he would hand over his marijuana-growing business for a fee, making Rothbaum more money in the long run than Brady owes. Bill agrees to the plan, going so far as to visit his mother, who has placed herself in a nursing home, in order to keep up appearances and trying to make amends with her about her failing him as a mother. Brady's plan turns out to be a ruse, as he and Bolger bring guns to the meeting and almost immediately kill Rothbaum and his men, hastily covering his tracks to make it seem like a hate crime.


During the course of finding Rothbaum, Brady is accidentally seen by Ken Feinman, who had met Bill on the plane to Little Dixie and who initially mistakes Brady for his brother. Realizing the two are twins, Ken figures out the brother's plan and connects Brady to Rothbaum's death, planning to blackmail the brothers in a desperate attempt to get fast money to pay off his debts. This leads to a confrontation that will greatly affect both Brady and Bill.

The Role of Philosophy and the Significance of the Title

Bill left Little Dixie to escape the criminal nature of his family. The film opens with one of his lectures, in which he quotes Socrates as saying "the healthy life is comprised of constant focus by the individual to excise those forces that weaken or confuse his understanding of the world around him," and that people must devote their lives to that sort of control. Bill and Brady represent the opposite sides of this argument. Bill forsakes relationships for this control and the life of an academic. Through his time with Brady and a blossoming relationship with Janet, a poetry teacher, Bill realizes that such control is pointless in a world full of spontaneity, and that relationships are what matters most. Janet embodies this ideal, quoting Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" as a way of negating Bill's belief in a structured, controlled world by saying that poetry and passion make their own rules. The title has a dual meaning, as Brady grows marijuana.


Ken drives to Bill's house and brandishes a gun, threatening to kill the brothers if they don't pay him for his silence. In the confusion, Brady and Ken are killed, forcing Bill to realize the importance of family and just how detached from the world he has let himself become. Bill then sets out to correct his brother's wrongs by selling his business to make money for Brady's family. The film closes on Bill and Janet, now in a relationship and residing in Brady's home. Bill's mother, who now lives with them there, has reconciled with Bill, with the two taking it upon themselves to mend their family and help raise Brady's child.


  • "Leaves of Grass"; Tim Blake Nelson, Director; 2009
  • "Chicago Sun-Times"; Roger Ebert's Journal: Tiff #10: Philosophy, Pot, Murder, Poetry; September 2009

Photo Credits

  • Valerie Macon/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images