By Richard Ades
When a Canadian farmer takes on the chemical giant Monsanto in Percy vs. Goliath, the result is similar to what happens when an American farmer takes on DuPont in 2019’s Dark Waters: Determined to protect its profits, the corporation threatens the farmer with ruin by dragging him through endless court battles.
The films are also similar in another respect: Both are earnest but sometimes preachy efforts that score more points politically than they do dramatically.
The new flick does have one big advantage over its predecessor in that it stars Christopher Walken as heroic Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Even playing a mild-mannered character whose chief attribute is stoicism, Walken supplies enough edge and mystery to add a smidgeon of unpredictability to a tale that otherwise offers few surprises.
Percy, 73, has spent his life farming the land and using the agricultural techniques he inherited from his ancestors. “I’m a seed saver,” he explains, meaning he collects the seeds from each year’s crop and replants the ones that gave him the best yields. That makes it doubly surprising when Monsanto hits him with the claim that he’s been using its genetically modified canola seeds without paying for them.
Convinced he’s been unjustly accused, Percy turns to local lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff), who advises him to pay the demanded fine rather than risk a much bigger loss by forcing Monsanto to take him to court. When Percy refuses to back down, he ends up getting himself in more trouble than he could have anticipated. In the process, he gains the attention and support of activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci), who represents a nonprofit group that opposes Monsanto’s attempt to monopolize the international market with its expensive GMO products.
Screenwriters Garfield L. Miller and Hilary Pryor adapted the tale from an actual court case that happened around the turn of the millennium. Directed by Clark Johnson, it’s brought to the screen with cinematography (by Luc Monpellier) that’s sometimes more dramatic than the action. Besides being relentlessly low-key, the film undercuts itself with characters whose behavior occasionally seems inconsistent.
Percy is said to be shy, but he throws himself into a public speaking tour in an effort to publicize his case. Similarly, Jackson downplays his legal ability, but he argues cases like a Canadian Perry Mason.
Then there’s Rebecca, who mostly comes across as selfless and dedicated but at one point turns ruthless and manipulative. And Percy’s wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) can’t seem to decide whether she supports her husband’s crusade or opposes it because of all the grief it’s brought the family.
None of these inconsistencies is impossible to believe. The problem is that the actors aren’t given enough opportunity to smooth out the transitions.
The film also makes other strange choices, such as when it leaves out the climactic moment in Percy’s first legal go-round with Monsanto. Instead, Percy and his lawyer simply review the development after the fact.
Percy vs. Goliath deserves credit for exploring a controversial issue that affects farmers not only in North America but worldwide. It falters only by failing to deliver its history lesson with all the drama it deserves.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Percy vs. Goliath (PG-13) is available in theaters and from VOD outlets beginning April 30.