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‘The Devil Has a Name’: Not your average legal thriller as a little guy battles Big Oil

Eclectic mix of actors plays the heroes and villains, most of them peculiar in some way.

An almond farmer (David Strathairn, left) and his best friend (Edward James Olmos, who also directs) suspect a nearby oil rig contaminated their property in “The Devil Has a Name.”
Momentum Pictures

Friends, we have a strong candidate for the most bat-bleep crazy movie of 2020. “The Devil Has a Name” is a contaminated-water legal thriller in the tradition of “Erin Brockovich,” “A Civil Action” and “Dark Waters,” but whereas the heroes and villains in those fine films were relatively grounded and sane people, just about everyone in this story has a couple of wobbly screws. They could have gone ahead and called this “Erin Nutsovich.”

Directed by the veteran actor Edward James Olmos and written by Robert McEveety (and what a crackling and often darkly funny script this is), “The Devil Has a Name” is a master class in casting, starting with David Strathairn as Fred Stern (because he’s stern!), a crusty old widower who has a farm in California’s Central Valley. Olmos plays Santiago, Fred’s farm manager of some 30 years and also Fred’s best friend, and we know they’re best buddies because not only do they constantly banter and bicker with one another, they actually take it to the next level and wrestle around Fred’s living room like teenage brothers.

A humongous Houston-based oil company owns a nearby oil rig, and when evidence surfaces indicating longtime environmental pollution on Fred’s farm, the evil head of the company, known as The Boss (Alfred Molina), enlists the services of the ethically bankrupt PR/fixit man Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment) to lowball Fred and strike a quick deal.

Nothing doing. Fred hires the crusading liberal lawyer Alex Gardner (Martin Sheen, who else?), who has the front grill of a Pinto mounted on his wall to mark his greatest victory, won against the makers of the infamous subcompact car. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth’s Gigi Cutler, who also works for the oil company, is swaggering about in cowboy boots and is constantly nipping from a flask and seems a bit unhinged as she tries to work both sides of the game. Oh, and then there’s Pablo Schreiber’s Ezekiel, an intimidating enforcer who has a thing for working in a little S&M when he’s working over his victims, male and female. Like just about everyone else in this movie, Ezekiel doesn’t seem quite right and is not to be trusted.

“The Devil Has a Name” has a timeline that skips this way and that, and drops in some heavy-handed social and political commentary about immigration and our current president in between wild scenes, e.g., Osment’s PR guy engaging in a booze- and drug-fueled threesome with the co-anchors of a local morning TV chat show where he has been making regular appearances and giving out money from the big oil company to the hard-luck locals. Even when we get to the obligatory courtroom sequences pitting underdog Fred the almond farmer against the big bad oil company, there are moments when we’re skirting the border of parody.

Not to fret. Strathairn and Olmos have a great, old-warriors chemistry, Sheen is practically playing himself and having a ball doing so, Osment lets his freak flag fly as the nuttiest public relations man in recent film history, Schreiber is a suitably hiss-worthy villain and Bosworth owns every scene she’s in as the cigar-chomping, booze-swilling, tough-talking Gigi Carter, who can walk into a room filled with arrogant and condescending men and slash them to their knees before the meeting is over.