New from actor and director Edward James Olmos, The Devil Has a Name tells the tale of a farmer, Fred Stern (David Straithairn) and his battle against a large oil and gas company he suspects is poisoning his land.
Through regional director Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth) – and at the behest of the CEO (Alfred Molina in a nameless role) – Shore Oil and Gas use every trick possible to undermine Fred and his case: threatening to expose Fred’s friend and farm manager Santiago (Olmos) as an illegal immigrant; employing advertising executive Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment) to make Fred a lowball offer that would ruin his business and likely lose him his home – a particularly sore point, given the recently-widowed Fred shared this with his wife; and employing Ezekiel (Pablo Schreiber), a violent enforcer, to scare Fred into complying.
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Employing Ralph Wegis (Martin Sheen), an environmental lawyer, with an understanding of the shadier industry practices on display, Fred will take on Shore, a company that has benefitted to the tune of $20 billion from the very practices that have imperilled the farm and business and, it is hinted, may have contributed to the cancer that took his wife. Against this backdrop, Gigi is fighting for her very future inside a firm that is accustomed to taking no prisoners.
From Dark Waters to Flint: The Poisoning of An American City, it is a sign of the times in which we live that there is an ever increasing focus on the issues of shady environmental practices, married to that of the impotence of the ‘little guy’ against the corporate machine. With an outstanding cast, perfectly married to their roles in every single case, this was a promising project. On the subject of performances, these are the film’s strongest calling card: Olmos and Straithairn have outstanding chemistry, with neither over-playing their roles. Schrieber is all coiled menace, in what is a rather under-developed part. Kate Bosworth – on this evidence – could, and should have been a far bigger star, portraying, as she does, a mix of vulnerable, aggressive, heartless, and alluring. On top of this, we have Sheen as a lawyer possibly a little past his best, but committed fully to his client.
The biggest issue with The Devil Has A Name is the complete lack of focus in the story. Although a David and Goliath tale of two men against the power of big oil, the film gets locked up in the internal politics of Shore Oil and Gas. It wastes its slight running time with diversions into the Board’s lack of trust in Gigi, and the internal battle waged upon her by Ezekiel. Although this gives Gigi’s arc its drive, it comes at the expense of the main story. The film gives us one scene depicting the effect of pollution on the farm, along with the implication that this may have caused the cancer that claimed Fred’s wife. Without more effort to show the audience the day-to-day effect on the farm and the lives of its residents, this becomes pure supposition, when Fred’s wife was likely in her 60s; cancers do happen, and the film does far too little to lay the blame at the feet of Shore Oil.
Into this comes Haley Joel Osment’s character, Alex. Although there to provide Shore’s opening gambit in its battle with Stern, too much screentime is wasted, where the only benefit to the plot is to explain the concept of the land’s ‘poor space’. This is so inefficient. Act two moves on to a court battle, but the focus shifts all over the place, with elements of whodunit, boardroom politics, a film noir-influenced femme fatale, and some minor attempts to reflect the impact of Donald Trump on immigrant communities. By the time Ezekiel threatens a drunk Gigi, it is difficult to pin down what film is being watched here.
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Finally, the film’s title refers to the Devil. Postulating in the very opening frames that Fred represents this figure, the film does nothing to expand upon this premise. Fred is a decent, if taciturn, and perhaps, overly-driven man, who is not painted in any way as an anti-hero, nor can he be held responsible for Shore’s downfall, as the story makes it clear beyond any doubt that they are the architects of their own downfall. At around 97 minutes, the film is short, and grounded by terrific performances. For this alone, it may be worth a look, if the subject matter is of interest. For all that, The Devil Has a Name takes a potentially interesting plot, a series of fascinating power dynamics, and proceeds to do little with it. Disappointing.
The Devil Has a Name is out now on Digital HD from Signature Entertainment.