The Devil Has a Name a story of farmers versus oil

The Devil Has A Name, M, 97 minutes, 3 stars

Every now and again a character comes along that stands out on the screen, burns themselves into our memories and, even though you may have trouble remembering the rest of the film, even the name of the film itself, something remains.

Kate Bosworth's beguiling and ballistic character Gigi Cutler in The Devil Has a Name could well be one of those characters. She has that no-nonsense fury that I loved so much about Lena Olin's Romeo is Bleeding character Mona Demarkov, in Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor and Pam Grier's Jackie Brown.

She works in a man's world, in the world of this fictional film that is the cut-throat oil business, and she demands the opportunity to play by the same rules as the men, which means to be just as brutal and opportunistic as the blokes.

In California's Central Valley, supplier of a surprisingly high percentage of the US's agriculture, productive farmland sits alongside oil derricks which has led to controversial and much publicised water contamination issues. These problems faced by the landowners and farmers were the inspiration for Robert McEveety's screenplay.

The film's director, Edward James Olmos, plays Santiago, right-hand man and farm manager for Fred Stern (David Strathairn), a widower whose almond orchard farm has seen better days and whose recent bereavement has left him unmotivated.

When Alex (Hayley Joel Osment), a representative from the company that owns the neighbouring oil property, appears to offer an insultingly low price to buy up Fred's land, the timing suspiciously coincides with poisoning of Fred's water supply, trees and land.

Rather than accept the offer, Fred hires gun lawyer Ralph (Martin Sheen) to go after the oil company whose regional boss Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth) is told to hold the line by the Big Boss (Alfred Molina). Just to ensure she does, Big Boss sends in his henchman Ezekiel (Pablo Schreiber) to crack skulls.

Gigi is an unexpected Machiavellian figure who gets to spit out brilliant dialogue, but for all the joy I find in Bosworth's performance, I have to say that there are a few too many problems with the film she was built for.

The Devil Has a Name suffers from trying to be too many things, billing itself as a dramedy, that mix of comedy and drama. There are great comedic elements, particularly in the performances of Bosworth and Schreiber as Gigi's violent male counterpart, and especially in Osment's egocentric fool of a local television personality manipulated by Gigi's oil company.

McEveety structures his film with subject headings - Plague, War, Famine, Death - and bookends scenes with Bosworth explaining her actions at a hostile board meeting. His script wants to be too many things, which misserves the handful of brilliant characters he births, and would have been better as an Erin Brockovich-style biopic of one of the real-life affected farmers.

It's hardly surprising these days when a big multinational is the bad guy. McEveety's writing of the bad guys could have served the film better if they were a little less two-dimensional, rather than banter-swapping anti-heroes who deserve their own breakaway comedy franchise.

Kate Bosworth and Haley Joel Osment deliver strong performances in The Devil Has a Name. Picture: Studiocanal

Kate Bosworth and Haley Joel Osment deliver strong performances in The Devil Has a Name. Picture: Studiocanal

The film's best moments come when Schreiber's Ezekiel or Bosworth's Gigi are on screen, and it is a career-elevating performance for Schreiber who built a profile as "Pornstache" on Orange is the New Black.

McEveety writes Olmos a distractingly interesting character who might not be so central to the plot if he weren't being played by the film's director. Olmos is a brilliant performer - he should have saved the lead for himself, however leading man Strathairn has a lovely role in the recent Oscar-winner Nomadland and this film might draw some of its audience out of that interest. Sheen gets to parade his eloquence in the courtroom scenes and one-time child star of The Sixth Sense Osment is delightfully smarmy.

Olmos's direction of his performers is strong and the work of cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos makes the film's Bakersfield locations look spectacular.

This story Fine cast in uneven comedy-drama first appeared on The Canberra Times.