"The Bible says contrition is good for the soul."
With the dissolution of the Hays Code in the late 1960s, a whole new world was opened up to American filmmakers, and it paved the way for them to bring more European sensibilities to American audiences. One genre that thrived in the wake of this revolution was the exploitation film. Any filmmaker with a couple thousand dollars and access to actors and locations could get their film made and then shown in one of the myriad "grindhouse" theaters that were ubiquitous in the seedier parts of major cities. As those theaters disappeared, the movement went underground and onto home video where it lived, but certainly didn't thrive, for many years.
The 2007 release of Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse looked like it might change all that. Now directors with a budget and a love for these films could bring them to the mainstream, but they lacked the edge, danger and love that made this such a vital movement in the first place. With the advent of digital video, we're now seeing a revival of true grindhouse cinema with the same ethics that once drove filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Paul Bartel and William Lustig to create their masterpieces of the genre.
A new pioneer of the micro-budget movement is writer/director Julian Grant, whose latest film Sweet Leaf recently screened at Las Vegas' PollyGrind Underground Film Festival where it picked up five awards including Best Crime Film and Best Overall Cast. If you're a fan of exploitation cinema, you're looking at its future...
Sweet Leaf tells the story of Steve (Brandon Galatz) and Billy (Graham Jenkins), two lowlife Chicago drug dealers who chose to smoke away their supply rather than sell it. They're now in deep to their supplier Tyvan (Sean Patrick Leonard), and have formulated a plan to rob a suburban car wash that is known to have large sums of cash on hand due to their lottery business. Never the most solid plan to begin with, it unravels a piece at a time, first when Mary Lou (Alexis Martino) a woman that Steve sometimes sleeps with discovers their plan and wants in.
Realizing that they'll most certainly need a getaway driver, they open up their plan once more to include a fourth member, Byrdy (Zane Byrdy), who has dubious reasons of his own for getting involved. Tyvan gets wind of their plan and flips the script on the would-be robbers, forcing them to either give him all the cash from their score, or be killed. Steve becomes increasingly paranoid, not sure how everyone is finding out about his plan, and no longer sure who he can trust, sending these ill-equipped criminals onto a collision course with fate.
It's unfortunate that most casual filmgoers frame of reference for exploitation films are the higher profile ones such as the aforementioned Grindhouse and Machete, as those are pale imitators to what a true exploitation film is, as they have the gloss of Hollywood safety written all over them. Jason Eisener's 2011 film Hobo With a Shotgun came much closer to the true feel of an exploitation film, and I would comfortably place Sweet Leaf in its company. This is a low budget affair that makes up for its obvious lack of funding with a ton of style and a deep understanding of what makes for a good exploitation film. Director Grant's use of Brian DePalma-esque split screen is one of the best stylistic flourishes that lets you know immediately that you're not just in good hands, but that you're in the hands of someone who inherently understands the language of the genre in which they're working.
The script contains all of the overt racism and casual misogyny that fans of the genre have come to expect, so take this as a warning to those of you who may find yourself offended by such touches. The use of inter-titles and odd techniques such as an "f-bomb" counter that rattles off the nearly thirty f-bombs dropped by the characters in a four minute sequence are also nice, if underused displays. In other words, if you're a fan of this genre and these conventions, you're in very good hands.
The cast is dedicated, if a bit uneven, and like most exploitation films it gives the best actors the smallest roles. Brandon Galatz is a perfectly serviceable lead, resembling and often channeling a young Chris Penn. The two best performances in the film by a mile came from Zane Byrdry and Sean Patrick Leonard. Byrdy underplays everything nicely, particularly considering that most of his scenes were played opposite a core trio of actors who all seemed as though they were trying to out-act one another. Byrdy compliments this perfectly, always doing less and coming off that much better as a result. Leonard conversely is having a blast going over the top, but never to his own detriment. He takes a page right out of Gary Oldman's playbook from True Romance, playing a white guy who acts like a black guy, yet scoffs at the notion of being compared to a black man. It's a perfectly pitched performance.
The cinematography and lighting made the film look as though it cost three times as much as it actually did. The film looks incredibly professional in that regard, almost doing itself a disservice. It feels strange to say this, but it felt almost too well-made for its own good. I would certainly never downgrade a film for looking too good, but you can tell that this is made by people who know their way around a film set, cameras and lighting equipment, making it feel strangely better than the average micro-budget production.
Sweet Leaf is not for everyone, but fans of the genre will most certainly get their rocks off on this one. Much like the disclaimers you hear on various programs about the content not being appropriate for younger or "more sensitive" listeners, this can be comfortably placed in that category. Those whose tastes run towards the grimier, filthier side of life will have a blast with this film, and be able to enjoy it for what it set out to do. It is expected to be released on VOD soon, and is still showing up at film festivals, so genre lovers should keep their eyes and ears peeled for this film, it's one hell of a ride.