'The Devil Has a Name': Film Review

Courtesy of LALIFF
Strathairn, Olmos and Sheen soar above the script.

A burned-out farmer played by David Strathairn fights the oil company contaminating the local water supply in this whistleblower drama directed by Edward James Olmos.

California’s Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. Its farmers produce a significant share of the U.S.’ food supply, and in recent years the practice of oil companies dumping toxic wastewater in ponds adjacent to Central Valley farmlands has drawn protest. Director and Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos’ latest feature The Devil Has a Name is a fictionalized drama of true events surrounding the Central Valley’s water contamination wars. The film’s world premiere closed the 2019 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, which Olmos co-founded over 20 years ago.

The movie opens with a picturesque view of recently widowed farmer Fred Stern (David Strathairn) standing in a grove of almond trees. There are so many brightly colored blossoms strewn on the ground, it almost looks like snow. But a sinister tone soon takes over as evidence of environmental pollution shows up on the farm just as a representative from the Houston oil company that owns the nearby rig (Haley Joel Osment) tries to lowball him into selling his land on the cheap. Fred’s farm manager Santiago (Olmos) suspects foul play, and from there — with the help of Santiago and the Ralph Nader-type lawyer he eventually hires (Martin Sheen) — Stern sets off on a fight to hold the oil company legally accountable.

The Devil Has a Name is a whistleblower drama a la Erin Brockovich that also wants to be a classic noir whodunit. Olmos balances a grim tale of corporate exploitation, environmental degradation and the plight of the American farmer with delightful buddy-comedy pairings. The playful sparring that Strathairn does with both Olmos and Sheen feels like everything you want to see from seasoned actors at this stage in their careers, and the dialogue always rings truest when Strathairn, Olmos and Sheen get to play against one another. The significant acting chops of this trio of leads is the primary reason the film is worth seeing.

Olmos’ Santiago, an immigrant from Mexico who has worked for Fred for 30 years, is the kind of character that in another pic wouldn’t be this multi-dimensional. He is a self-described anarchist who also loves snapping selfies throughout the day. He moves seamlessly between speaking English and Spanish no matter whether he is talking to Stern, Stern’s lawyer Ralph or his buddies at the bar. That there is no subtitling suggests that Olmos wants to subvert the idea of Spanish as a “foreign” language and make much-needed room for Latinx moviegoers to see themselves in the story. But even for non-Spanish speakers, Santiago’s cool Grandpa snark is hard to miss and even harder not to love.

But the film lacks coherence at times. Olmos and his veteran cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos (Breaking Bad, Love and Basketball, 9 to 5) experiment with time-lapsed images of a mysterious oil-like substance being submerged in water that are interesting enough. But they don’t carry the chutzpah of this kind of visual thread throughout the rest of the pic, and so its initial impact ends up falling flat.

The whodunit aspect of the movie also feels forced and unnecessary, as if it were inserted to give the story some proverbial “spice.” Instead, the setup causes more confusion than story-propelling suspense. Pablo Schreiber’s character is the primary villain, a menacing fixer sent by the oil company to both intimidate Stern into dropping the lawsuit and, weirdly, to taunt the oil company’s onsite staff. In a scene that finds the local manager for the oil company, Gigi (a confident Kate Bosworth), having an apparent out-of-nowhere mental breakdown involving copious amounts of alcohol and randomly destroying the carpet (enough with the female hysteria trope already), Schreiber's character appears to fan the flames of her descent. We don’t know why he’s threatening someone on his own team, and the scene’s play for sadistic sexiness is perhaps meant to distract us from that.

What gets lost in all this contrived drama is who the story’s real villains actually are: the oil company and the governmental system that puts out-of-town corporate interests over the rights of the locals.

Olmos clearly wants his film to be a call to arms about a number of issues: the political climate in the Trump era; the rights of undocumented immigrants; and the real-life policy loophole that allows oil companies to dump toxic waste in wastewater ponds in California. But it actually ends up being more of a story about the redemptive bond of friendship. The Devil Has a Name infinitely succeeds at getting us to care about Fred and Santiago and their friendship — and maybe inspiring empathy for characters like these who aren’t as commonly portrayed in cinema as they should be is all the rallying cry we need.

Production companies: StoryBoard Media, True Navigator Media
Cast: David Strathairn, Edward James Olmos, Kate Bosworth, Pablo Schreiber, Haley Joel Osment, Alfred Molina, Martin Sheen
Director: Edward James Olmos
Screenwriter: Robert McEveety
Producers: Bobbi Sue Luther, Robert McEveety, Stephen McEveety, Marty Schwartz
Executive producers: Chris Ranta, David Segel
Director of photography: Reynaldo Villalobos
Music: Ariel Marx, Mark Tschanz
Venue: Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) 2019

97 minutes