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Movie review: Strong performances prevail in the timely ‘The Devil Has a Name’

Ed Symkus
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Farmers Fred (David Strathairn) and Santiago (Edward James Olmos) try to fight Big Oil.

It’s OK that in the early minutes of “The Devil Has a Name,” you might not understand exactly what’s going on. Screenwriter Robert McEveety introduces his story with a soft focus on details: Who are these people and what are they talking about? Then, with assured direction by actor-director Edward James Olmos, and a shift to flashback mode, it all slowly and steadily starts to draw you in, and make sense. It’s a tale that’s based on fact, but it plays like good fiction.

That blurry opening scene is in the offices of a big Texas oil company. One of its rising stars, Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth), is trying to explain to her boss - who is only referred to as Big Boss (Alfred Molina) - how she has accrued “major losses” for the company.

“Let me tell you what happened,” she says, as the action flashes back to some incidents in Central California, where she was sent to purchase some land from longtime farmer Fred Stern (David Strathairn). Her plan is to do it through a middleman - a fast-talking local fellow named Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment), who knows all the farmers. She tells Alex the truth: that pulling oil from the ground results in the water around it going radioactive. She wants him to work for her, to get Fred to sell his land, on the cheap, to the oil company before he finds out what they’ve done to it.

So, the name of the devil must be Gigi.

Alex approaches his friend Fred - a hardworking man, steadfast environmentalist, and sad, recent widower - with a ridiculous offer that he can and, after strong words from his longtime friend and foreman Santiago (Edward James Olmos), does refuse.

“You wouldn’t play me, would you?” Fred asks of Alex. “Of course not!” is the reply.

Is it possible that the name of the devil is Alex?

My only quibble in figuring out who the devil the devil is has to do with the layout of the film. Once the flashback begins, the story plays out in a mostly straight line. But the script keeps jumping forward to Gigi, explaining herself to her boss, who is well aware that the company created a mess, but is upset only that she didn’t properly cover it up. The past-present gimmick isn’t needed, but it does pose the idea that perhaps the devil’s name is Big Boss.

Fred, knowing that the money offer is far too low, and that his land has been polluted by contaminated waste water, and now wonders if his wife was poisoned by it, hires Ralph Wegis (Martin Sheen), a hot-shot lawyer who has gone after some big bad targets before, and is acknowledged for winning his cases.

Up to this juncture in the film, Strathairn has stood out with the performance to watch and enjoy. Then Sheen jumps in with a smaller, but slightly more clever one, mixing a serious approach with a healthy dose of sly humor. Neither one of these characters is going to be construed as the devil.

But there’s definitely a candidate with the introduction of the despicable Ezekiel (Pablo Schreiber), a mean and truly scary man who announces that he’s in town to “bring Stern to the table” or “to his knees.”

Other characters appear: Many cross paths and get involved with each other, whether they want to or not. Vows are made: Fred and Santiago insist that they’re going to “fight these pigs.” So are power plays: Ezekiel lets Gigi know that she’s working for him, now. Issues of the day are brought up: Is one of the main characters an illegal alien?

As already mentioned, there are some outstanding performances on display. Another one belongs to Osment who, once things shift into a courtroom setting, shows that his character, despite being shut down and somewhat tamed by threats of harm, reverts again to his cocky side.

This is a film with a serious subject at its center, and both funny and frightening and heart-tugging ones at its edges. It’s about wrongdoing and salvation and comeuppance, and living out dreams.

“The Devil Has a Name opens in theaters and On Demand on Oct. 16.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Devil Has a Name”

Written by Robert McEveety; directed by Edward James Olmos

With David Strathairn, Kate Bosworth, Edward James Olmos, Pablo Schreiber, Haley Joel Osment, Martin Sheen

Rated R