Over the course of the past century, Monsanto discovered a way to farm the American farmer by developing, patenting and supplying genetically modified seeds. Instead of getting its hands dirty in the fields, the company cultivates its yield directly from the land workers, who have virtually no choice but to buy the agrochemical company’s seeds. For the farmers who do it the old-fashioned way — by collecting seeds from last year’s harvest and planting them the next — they risk not only weaker, bug- and weed-susceptible produce, but also being bullied by Monsanto in court.
If you’re savvy enough to recognize what a gross oversimplification that represents of a complex scientific, economic and legal situation, then loosely fact-based “Percy vs Goliath” is probably not the movie for you. While well cast and plenty compelling (including feisty turns from Christopher Walken and Christina Ricci), this reductive farmer drama deals in emotions more than explanations as it seeks to convey what it means for a little-guy grower like Percy Schmeiser to go up against Big Agro.
Director Clark Johnson clearly had such stirring anti-corporate environmental crusades as “Erin Brockovich” and “Promised Land” in mind, portraying Monsanto as a greedy near-monopoly (which isn’t necessarily false) without properly explaining what Percy is being accused of, or acknowledging the not-insignificant way the massive crop corp has increased the efficiency of food production worldwide. “Percy vs Goliath” may be a sufficient conversation starter, but those looking for some much-needed context would do well to check out the similarly titled 2009 documentary “David vs Monsanto,” which digs deeper into the Saskatchewan farmer’s protracted legal battle against the GMO manufacturer.
Audiences rightly love such underdog stories, which have gone a long way to raise awareness about the collateral callousness of the companies that purport to make life better for everyone. Here, Walken portrays Percy as an elderly yet honorable crank, who’s fined $19,000 by Monsanto for using its proprietary technology (Roundup Ready seeds, which have evidently blown into his land from neighboring fields) and ordered to surrender his entire contaminated seed supply to the company. That may seem like an outrageous claim, but the movie doesn’t do much to unpack it, focusing instead on the principle that Percy should be able to do whatever he wants with his land.
In the movie, Monsanto sends men to trespass on and obtain samples from local farmers’ land, then shadows Percy’s pickup in an unmarked white van, all of which amounts to a form of intimidation. But Percy is a man of principle, and rather than simply paying the company to make the problem go away — as so many others have — he decides to fight it in court. Enter small-town lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff), who advises Percy against a legal fight, then “reluctantly” takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Meanwhile, Monsanto throws a small army at the problem, with a smug-looking Martin Donovan as its captain.
Apart from Percy’s supportive wife, Louise (Roberta Maxwell), and a perky/pushy environmental activist named Rebecca (Ricci, doing her best Reese Witherspoon), hardly anyone thinks the Schmeisers stand a chance. Even Percy’s son Peter (Luke Kirby) urges Dad to settle, while the local farmers ostracize and heckle the old man, accusing him of “stealing” the same seeds they’re obliged to pay for. Technically, they might be right, but the movie obviously sides with Schmeiser, sending the character across the globe at one point to discover how Monsanto may be responsible for the suicides of as many as 270,000 Indian farmers.
So many of these details — up to and including having Braff’s character lean on a cane he may have nicked from Hugh Laurie’s “House” — feel like textbook strategies to align viewers with a character whose stubborn, surly personality is rigidly one-dimensional. Whereas everyone else, including Rebecca, seems to have agendas that make them slightly more layered, Garfield L. Miller and Hilary Pryor’s script depicts Percy as an independent-minded idealist. But it’s not that simple.
The real Schmeiser was far savvier about the situation at hand than the one Walken embodies, but that doesn’t matter so much, since truth-based movies are permitted to take a certain liberty in the telling. From his creative acting choices and eccentric bits of “business” (like that freaky scarecrow scene) to the plaintive high pitch he brings to some of his line deliveries (“I didn’t know anything about any patent. They were on my land!”), Walken’s performance is never predictable and easily the most engaging aspect of a film that keeps finding fresh ways to advance its central conflict outside the courtroom. In one scene, Percy leads that nosy white van down an unpaved country road, leaving it stuck and spinning its wheels in a giant puddle. In another, spies working for Monsanto pester Louise at a county fair.
These confrontations have the benefit of taking place outdoors, which seems to be where both Walken and his director appear most comfortable (Johnson has quite a few TV credits to his name, including several episodes of “The Wire” and “The Shield”). From the unexpectedly tense opening scene, in which good Christian churchgoer Percy ducks out of Sunday service to face an oncoming storm back in his fields, DP Luc Montpellier’s widescreen lensing contrasts golden-hued horizons with relatively shadowy indoor dealings. Meanwhile, Steven MacKinnon’s folksy string score keeps things from ever getting too dark. From “Days of Heaven” to “Inherit the Wind,” it won’t be hard for audiences to identify the many all-American movies that inspired this north-of-the-border production, though they’ll be too busy debating the Monsanto situation to worry about where Johnson plucked the seeds of his aesthetic.