Monsanto v. Schmeiser

Christopher Walken stars in a famous canola case

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Percy
Opens October 9

Before proceeding with this review, there are two things I’d like to get out of the way. First, it’s a shame that this story of a judicial dispute between Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser and U.S. biotech behemoth Monsanto was shot in Manitoba. The Sask. Party’s short-sighted decision to kill the film employment tax credit in 2011 continues to cast a long shadow. Not only is Saskatchewan lagging far behind most of Canada in developing a film industry, local stories aren’t seeing the light of day unless adopted by another province.

Second, Percy has its heart in the right place, so any criticism of the movie is craft-related and shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Monsanto. I’m not here to discuss the conglomerate’s shady business practices, or the damage it’s done to farming operations worldwide. That’s not my job. But Monsanto sucks.

With that out of the way, let’s talk turkey — or, at least, canola. In 1998, Humboldt-area farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto for “stealing their seeds”, meaning he grew genetically modified canola without a licence. Schmeiser, who had run the family farm since 1954, claimed he was unaware of the presence of Monsanto’s mutant seed in his field.

Most farmers would have settled for paying a $10,000 patent infringement fee and moved on. But Schmeiser decided to fight Monsanto in court. The decision made him a reluctant icon for countless famers who were bankrupted or de facto owned by Monsanto.

As compelling as David-vs.-Goliath narratives are, Percy is mostly a character piece. As depicted in the movie, the protagonist is taciturn to the point of hostile, and doesn’t feel major kinship with fellow farmers. Only during the fight does he develop a sense of community — not with the locals (who side with Monsanto), but others around the world.

While director Clark Johnson’s decision to minimize the court process isn’t the greatest, he does a good job laying out the stakes (the case eventually reached the Supreme Court, and the outcome deterred Monsanto from introducing GMO wheat). The film is hampered, though, by less than stellar dialogue. And the depiction of small-town life is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The fake newscasters took me right out of the movie too. Truly amateurish.

Ultimately, the film lives and dies on Christopher Walken’s performance as Percy Schmeiser. His meatiest role in over a decade, Walken doesn’t play the part as much as underplay his on-screen persona — cantankerous, aloof, yet with a moral core. He’s watchable, but doesn’t seem to be in the same movie as the rest of the cast, team players Zach Braff, Christina Ricci, Roberta Maxwell and Adam Beach.

Overall, Percy is flawed, but that doesn’t make the message any less true.