Though it’s never stated outright, some digging makes clear that Edward James Olmos’s earnest antipollution drama, “The Devil Has a Name,” is based on the life of Fred Starrh, a California farmer whose business sued an energy company, claiming that byproducts from its oil extraction had breached the farm’s property and affected its groundwater’s value. (Starrh’s son Lawrence is an executive producer.)
And perhaps because it was inspired by actual circumstances, “The Devil Has a Name,” at 97 minutes, shows signs of having been cut down from an intractably long and twisty story. The acting styles vary wildly. The prominently billed Kathleen Quinlan is barely glimpsed. Major developments (such as a character’s half-baked murder plot and sudden television fame) arrive without sufficient setup. And the film is divided into grandiose chapter headings (“PLAGUE,” “WAR,” “FAMINE,” “DEATH”) that barely connect to the material.
The movie unfolds in flashbacks as an oil bigwig, Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth, quipping as if she were in a screwball comedy), relates the story of a major financial loss to a rival within her company (Alfred Molina, acting like a Coen brothers heavy) and representatives of its board. Her story involves Fred Stern (David Strathairn), a farmer who — with the help of an aging, crusading lawyer (Martin Sheen) — sued the company, refusing to be bought off. As we watch Fred’s case progress, a sadistic henchman (Pablo Schreiber) engages in trespassing, arson and Machiavellian power plays to prevent Fred and a friend, the farm’s foreman (Olmos), from prevailing.
Clearly well-intentioned, “The Devil Has a Name” means to deliver an inspirational lesson about the depravity of big industry and the power of the little guy. But it’s mostly a muddle.
The Devil Has a Name
Rated R. Corporate disregard for life and the environment. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.