The Devil Has a Name is based on the reality of the California Central Valley’s water contamination wars—oil companies dumping toxic wastewater next to farms.
Director and actor Edward James Olmos’ fictional drama begins with widowed farmer Fred Stern (David Strathairn) among his almond trees.
But the trees are starting to rot.
A supposed friend and shill for an oil company that owns the nearby oil field (Haley Joel Osment) tries to get Fred to sell his land.
Fred’s farm manager Santiago (Olmos) is a self-described anarchist who also loves snapping selfies.
He suspects foul play.
From there—with the help of Santiago and a crusading lawyer (Martin Sheen)—Fred sets off on a fight to hold the oil company legally accountable.
The film just about balances a grim tale of corporate exploitation, environmental degradation and the plight of the farmer with buddy movie pairings and a thriller plot.
The sparring between the good guys is a pleasure to watch. When Strathairn, Olmos and Sheen get to play against one another, the movie is at its best.
There are subtle issues of class and race and trust and loss played out in these generally lighter scenes.
That Olmos has a rounded Hispanic character sat near the heart of the movie is a refreshing change.
The bad guys, in contrast, are more cartoonish but less successful.
Pablo Schreiber’s character is the primary villain.
He’s a menacing fixer sent by the oil company to both intimidate Fred into dropping the lawsuit and crush a higher boss’s enemies in the local set-up.
The target for that is Gigi (Kate Bosworth), the hero of the bad side characters.
Well-acted fragile evil—but, at least on one reading, not the devil of the title.
Her “bad woman tries to outdo bad men” plot is a little contrived.
And unlike the rounded look at migrants in the US, it edges on stereotype.
There are elements of a call to arms about the Donald Trump era.
For instance the oil company execs and lawyers are all openly racist, and the treatment of migrant labour is deplored.
It stands in a long line of Hollywood liberal films where the good guys can beat the bosses in the courts—or can they? But at its heart it can’t decide which way to go.
It moves between the little guy against the people who will do anything to protect oil interests to corporate thriller to show the malign nature of the system.
But both parts of the well-acted trip are enjoyable.