If ‘The Devil Has a Name’ it’s Satan McMediocre

by Warren Cantrell on October 15, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Opens October 16t in theaters, on demand, and digital

Most people have seen some version of this story before: a based-on-a-true-story flick about an evil corporation squeezing or otherwise screwing over normal folks for a profit, leading to a David v. Goliath lawsuit. The Devil Has a Name is just such a film, and it fails not because it is too similar to Erin Brockovich, Class Action, Dark Waters, or A Civil Action, but because unlike those movies, it has trouble deciding which side of the genre’s binary to live. Hampered by a restless script that feels like it is off its ADHD meds, The Devil Has a Name has a few bright spots thanks in large part to its stellar cast, yet never manages to bring all its pieces together in a way that makes good use of them.

Presented largely in flashbacks by way of a debriefing, The Devil Has a Name opens with an executive with Shore Oil, Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth), explaining to her bosses what went wrong with her last assignment. Gigi explains that as regional director of the company’s San Joaquin Valley operations she acted on her own initiative to try and buy off a local farmer, Fred Stern (David Strathairn), whose groundwater was poisoned by the company’s nearby oil operations. Gigi engaged a local, Alex (Haley Joel Osment), as a shill buyer to try and purchase Fred’s farm with an eye towards avoiding a potential lawsuit down the line, but Fred became aware of the impact of the groundwater pollution before he could sell and lawyer’d up.

Gigi explains that this is when Fred hired Ralph Aegis (Martin Sheen), the attorney who brought Ford to their knees during the Pinto scandal, which in turn prompted Shore Oil to send a fixer to the Valley in the form of Ezekiel (Pablo Schreiber). Ezekiel’s entrance into the narrative wasn’t just trouble for Gigi and Fred, but for the film as a whole, for his character represents something of a second front that the story has to deal with. No longer just a tale of the little guy versus big oil, The Devil Has a Name pivots to add yet another hero and villain to the mix, which is one pair too many for this screenplay.

As the film proceeds, Fred fights Shore Oil, who is waging a mini-battle against their own rep. (Gigi) by way of Ezekiel, who wants to sink not just Fred but also Gigi for reasons that are never sufficiently made clear. This movie already has a well-defined plot arc set up by the close of its first act, yet instead of committing to this story and the lawsuit that defines the major players, the movie throws in another villain and sidetracks Gigi to a position that is neither hero nor heel. In trying to sort all of this out, the film pretty much abandons its focus on Fred’s lawsuit to explore the backstabbing and double-crossing Gigi, Ezekiel, and Shore Oil engage in for the last hour of this thing.

If director Edward James Olmos wanted to tell just Fred’s story in the 90 minutes that’s allotted to this flick, then he might have done that well enough; likewise, had Olmos and the script set its sights on the corporate struggle that Gigi, Ezekiel, and her bosses at Shore Oil were engaging in, that might have worked as its own story with Fred in the background. As it stands, though, there are just too many plates spinning with this one, and none of the characters or the narratives surrounding them see the development needed to do their stories justice.

Bosworth and Strathairn seem to be trying their hardest to keep all of this together with their performances, but the direction provided to all the actors feels so broad that much of it comes across as cartoonish. Whether it is Gigi’s boss (Alfred Molina) doing a double fist clench above his head in frustration, or Ralph hustling out of court one day because he has to pee, the tone of The Devil Has a Name rests just under “over the top.” It’s an odd choice for a film that seems to take itself and its environmental themes so seriously, as this is a picture that is concerned with legitimate and relevant life and death issues.

It’s a curious thing but it is at least on-brand for the larger effort, as the script offers more questions than answers with this one. Is this Fred’s story, or Gigi’s? Is this a deadly serious drama about corporate espionage and the long-term impact of industrial complacency, or a light-hearted redemption story about a farmer taking on “the system”? Oh, and if we’re asking questions, why the hell did the film commit roughly five minutes and the better part of a montage to a vignette featuring Gigi tearing up her condo’s carpet?

It is hard to say, for all these questions and more. Olmos does a decent job framing both the action and the intimate with handheld work and a low-light climax that looks great (yet seems to belong in another picture). Katie Aselton is a bright spot amongst the cast as a high-powered attorney representing Shore Oil, and Olmos does well in a supporting role as Fred’s oldest friend and confidant, yet like so much else in The Devil Has a Name, the film is so busy trying to figure out what kind of story it wants to tell that both are largely wasted. Like the poisoned groundwater under Fred’s farm, everything about this one seems alright on the surface, familiar, even, only for the foundation underpinning everything to sabotage the larger effort.  

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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