Farmers are a proud people. They have to be. If you have never driven through the middle of the United States, or in the case of Percy Vs Goliath (2020) Southern Canada, then allow me to fill you in on a few things. Pride is a product of independence, and there are few more independent than those who till the soil. This probably goes without saying, but agricultural areas are sparsely populated. Being on your own with your neighbors miles away, you need to be able to find innovative methods to take care of yourself. It is a way of life that goes back centuries. What happens, though, when a modern corporation attempts to take on a farmer with generations of tradition behind him? That is the subject of today’s film.
Another aspect of being a farmer is the hard work, and that is something we see right away in Percy Vs Goliath. When a bad storm calls Percy Schmeiser (Christopher Walken) out of Mass one day, he heads immediately to his fields with his farmhand Alton Kelly (Adam Beach) in order to save his seeds. That is a key phrase in this film. Doing so allows him to selectively breed crops that are naturally more resistant to environmental factors like predatory insects and drought. When we first see Percy in his barn, you see several jars with years labeled on them, indicating that this is a practice that goes back many years. Later on we learn that it is something his family had been doing since before it immigrated from Europe. The modern solution, as developed by companies like Monsanto, is to genetically modify plants and use insecticides in order to keep crop loss low. This is the option many farmers understandably opt for because of its efficiency and guarantees of higher yields. When some of this altered seed blows into Percy’s fields, he gets a yield boost, and he uses the extra profits to purchase new agricultural implements. This brings the attention of Monsanto, who gets a court order to be issued to Percy to have the farmer pay the corporation for using seed that carried their proprietary gene. This is where Percy’s pride and independence come to the fore. Instead of giving in and paying the damages, he hires a lawyer, Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff), to fight the injunction. What is at stake is not only Percy’s seed legacy, but also the notion that all famers have to cow (pun intended) to the demands of companies like Monsanto. This last bit is what causes an environmental advocate named Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci), who sees Percy’s fight as an opportunity to make a bigger statement about the perceived damage done by genetically modified plants. At first, Percy wants nothing to do with a larger struggle. Yet, with losses and debts mounting, Rebecca’s organization promises to raise funds for him and his family. Still, going up against Monsanto is not only costing Percy money, but is also making him and his wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) pariahs in their community. It gets worse, too, with each appeal that he makes. By the time it gets to the Canadian Supreme Court, Percy’s fine from Monsanto reaches over a million dollars, which he will have to pay when he loses. Because this is a great story, with the title kind of giving away the ending, you can probably guess that Percy wins at the highest court in Canada. However, it should be noted that Percy is ultimately forced to surrender his seed. You see, there were particulars of the case he never denied. He admitted to using Monsanto’s Round-Up insecticide on his crop. That, combined with the seed that blew into his field, meant that he did in fact profit unwittingly from the company’s products. Still, his triumph showed that small famers could stand up to large corporations and win.
Given a title like Percy Vs Goliath, it automatically lends itself to a review by this Catholic. It also helps that Percy and Louise appear to be Catholic themselves, and often talk about their prayer lives. Still, let us take a closer look at the title metaphor. It is one of those Bible stories that has been so incorporated into Western culture that we almost forget its origin. Whenever you talk about an underdog going up against someone or something vastly more powerful, we typically refer to it as David versus Goliath. David was the king of Israel chosen by God to replace Saul. But who was he? In short, he was the last person anyone expected God to pick to lead His chosen people. And yet that is typical of how God makes His glory known. People expect the mighty to be carrying out God’s will, but it so often comes from more humble origins. David’s story is an apt comparison to Percy’s. Both come from agricultural backgrounds. Also, unlike so many of the individualized ways this story gets used, Percy also becomes a symbol for farmers in going against forces bigger than their large spreads.
I like Percy Vs Goliath. It speaks to me on many levels, both in its setting and the religious angle. You might see that Christopher Walken is playing a Canadian farmer and think that it does not make a lot of sense. Normally, I would agree with you. And yet he seemed to do a good job of adopting the thousand-yard stare so common among farm folk. It also does a good job of giving a balanced view of both sides of the issue. It may not be the most exciting movie ever, but it is a good one.