A film review by Craig J. Koban May 14, 2021

PERCY jj

2021, PG-13, 109 mins.

Christopher Walken as Percy Schmeiser  /  Roberta Maxwell as Louise Schmeiser  /  Christina Ricci as Rebecca Salcau  /  Zach Braff as Jackson Weaver  /  Adam Beach as Alton Kelly  /  Luke Kirby as Peter Schmeiser  /  Zoe Fish as Mary Schmeiser

Directed by Clark Johnson  /  Written by Hilary Pryor

The new semi-biographical/environmental drama PERCY (aka PERCY VS. GOLIATH, depending on your location of release) details the plight of Saskatchewan based farmer and businessman Percy Schmeiser, who became a relative celebrity and spokesperson for independent agricultural rights when he waged a multi-tier legal battle against a corporation that accused him of using its own patented seeds without their permission.  

Now, this all doesn't seem to be the stuff of intoxicating drama, not to mention that the film doesn't altogether traverse down any new terrain as far as ordinary folk taking on big business in a David Vs. Goliath struggle.  What makes PERCY modestly intriguing is the atypical casting of Christopher Walken and his low key performance (yes, he may not be everyone's first image that comes to mind when one thinks of Canadian prairie dweller, but he's in solid form here).  Those expecting trademark eccentric Walken-isms may be up for disappointment, but I for one admire the serene restraint and grounded conviction that he brings to the role.  Without the Oscar winning actor, PERCY would have been fairly disposable.   

The fact-based narrative introduces us to the titular farmer, who in the late 1990s tended to his farmland as he did for decades until cruel fate stepped in with the appearance of Monsanto Co. and their heavily damning accusations against him.  In short, this corporation accused him of theft.  It was Monsanto's claim that Percy stole their own proprietary seeds that are pesticide resistant without their permission and - most importantly - without paying them a dollar (or loonie in the Canadian lexicon).  Percy, a man of integrity and pride, steadfastly denies the charges of being a petty and sneaky thief.  It's his counter-claim that he's incomparably familiar with the machinations of his farmland, which has been overseen by multi-generations of his family for half a century.  That, and he feels that any Monsanto seeds that appeared on his farmland must have accidentally blown in from nearby farms, which means that he didn't willfully steal anything, nor was he even aware that these seeds were in his soil.  Monsanto feels otherwise, and their legal teams insist that it doesn't matter how the seeds got on Percy's land, which propels them to take action.   

Pondering over what to do next, Percy discusses the legal war to come with his loving and supportive wife in Louise (a fine Roberta Maxwell), and both know that they are frankly getting too old for a protracted court case alongside the damaging financial burden that would hit them.  Percy sees this whole affair as an attack on his character as a lifelong farmer, so he decides to seek legal consul and hires a local lawyer, Jackson (Zach Braff), who insists that this is a battle that Percy and Louise will probably not win.  He thinks that coughing up Monsanto's demanded $150,000 in damages/compensation would be in order, but Percy can't bring himself to acquiesce.  Begrudgingly, Jackson takes the case and in the ensuing and initial court battle Percy maintains his innocence, while a legion of seasoned lawyers for Monsanto are unwavering in their assertion that their seeds (which work with their own house brand herbicide Roundup) are their property.  The first case ends with a swift victory for Monsanto, which results in them now wanting more money from the nearly bankrupt Percy, including legal fee coverage.  As Jackson and Percy plot a move to a Supreme Court challenge, an environmental activist in the form of Rebecca (Christina Ricci) emerges, who wants to use Percy as a symbol to go on a campaign tour to preach out against Monsanto's highly questionable and unethical farming measures.   

 

 

There's an awful lot to unpack here in terms of the various legal struggles portrayed in PERCY, but it does so in a fairly expeditious manner, even if it paints both parties in fairly black and white delineations (proud farmer = good, corporation fighting him = greedy and evil).  When one starts to disseminate the simple nuts and bolts of Monsanto's case, it seems both unreasonable and callous.  How can one accurately accuse Percy of theft without (a) motive or intent and (b) actually catching him red handed stealing said seeds.  Percy's defense that the Monsanto seeds mostly likely blew in on his fields from elsewhere seems logical enough, but also comes across as circumstantial.  Monsanto feels taken advantage of to the point of requesting an ungodly amount of money from this senior citizen, which doesn't reflect well on them as a company.  Unfortunately for Percy (and especially after his first legal loss), his reputation takes an even costlier hit, with many nearby farmers and people that he and his wife once called allies and friends now don't want to have anything to with them.  This makes Percy feeling like he has a Scarlet Letter, of sorts, branded on him, and that precipitates his willingness to join forces with Rebecca to wage a different kind of war against Monsanto's and all other gluttonous companies that want to take advantage of farmers. 

These core relationships set within the story give PERCY a sense of urgency, especially with Percy and Louise's ties with Jackson (he's a good man that wants to help, but is pragmatic enough to know the Herculean legal challenge ahead) and Rebecca, with the latter seeming more like she's in it to use Percy as a larger springboard to initiate broad conversations in the world about farmer's rights and corporate injustice (she does, though, pointedly inform Percy that she can offer no legal assistance of any kind, but rather a conduit for him to raise money and speak his mind to so many around the world that also feel stepped on by forces outside of their control).  This builds towards some of the more interesting subplots in PERCY, which involves the farmer journeying to foreign countries like India to see how that nation's farmers have been used and abused in a similar manner (at this point Percy begins to see the sheer magnitude of his mission at hand).  All of this is driven home by Walken's economical and calmly authoritative performance as this beleaguered, but driven man.  Even when most of the film built around Percy is fairly conventional, Walken's nonchalant appeal and no-nonsense gumption here wins the day and elicits deep audience interest.  Plus, it's refreshing to see the veteran actor play an everyman after a recent career of taken roles that have become almost a parody of himself.   

PERCY is also a looker, with cinematographer Luc Montpellier making the golden wheat fields and open skies of Saskatchewan (my home province, incidentally) look suitably majestic.  Sumptuous visuals and a sterling performance by Walken can't completely override the film's faults, though.  When it boils right down to it, PERCY tells a dime-a-dozen tale of ruthless big business trying to take a piece of the common man, and as an underdog legal saga it's all painted with fairly obligatory strokes; the players and particulars are different, to be sure, but the themes and beats here have been done to death in far too many previous films to count.  That's not to say that Percy's plight with Monsanto isn't worthy of cinematic investment (it's pretty blood boiling overall), but some details - as is often the case with fact based dramas - are conveniently skimped over (like, for example, that the real Percy not only owned a farm, but also multiple farm equipment dealerships, meaning he was far from a struggling farmer desperate to make ends meet when Monsanto initiated their legal battle).  I appreciated the minutia of corporate injustice and Percy's plight and how that extended well beyond just him as an agricultural man; his Supreme Court fight would have sizeable ripple effects.  PERCY is a well meaning drama that somehow and regrettably just doesn't come together as fully or robustly as it wants to, which makes it hard to wholly recommend as a must-watch genre piece.  

At least Walken and those picturesque Saskatchewan vistas are eminently watchable here. 

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