Narratively flawed but admirably ambitious and occasionally splendid, “At Any Price” details trouble in the heartland. Established indie writer-director Ramin Bahrani delivers some uncharacteristically phony melodrama in this most commercial film he’s made to date. But his trademark human shades and social textures prevail, and the result is a gripping look at the cutthroat world of modern farmers.
Co-writing with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Bahrani, who explored immigrant dreams in his realist “Man Push Cart” and “Goodbye Solo,” gives us established American farm folk dealing with economic hardships and the presence of big agribusiness in this expressively styled drama.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a competitive Iowa farmer with a loyal wife named Irene (Kim Dickens), two sons and a credo of “Expand or Die.”
The drama heats up when Henry realizes that his favored son, the world-traveling Grant, has no interest in running the family farm.
This forces him to place his hopes in younger son Dean (Zac Efron), a rebel in whom he has previously shown little faith. Dean has NASCAR, not tractor, aspirations and a self-destructive streak.
Thickening things is an investigation launched in regard to the genetically modified seeds that Henry, hoping to gain ground on a rival salesman, has been selling for a Monsanto-like company. Henry’s reselling of the corn is illegal. Ensuing events threaten to shatter the family.
While far more than “Death of a Salesman” meets “Glengarry Glen Ross” in the cornfields, the story is the film’s weakest component. A cliched incident nearly dooms the final act. The female characters, who include Henry’s mistress, Meredith (Heather Graham), are sketchily defined.
The mismatched skills of Quaid, who conveys serious desperation behind Henry’s salesman’s smile, and Efron, who, despite a physical resemblance to a certain actor named Dean, pales, thespian-wise, next to his co-star, undermine the father-son conflict.
But Bahrani delivers affecting tragic texture between the plot dots and powerfully illustrates how hard times and corporate ruthlessness have destroyed individual and community pride and farmer solidarity.
Like Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” and Jeff Nichols’ superior “Mud,” Behrani’s film impressively aims for grandness, insightfully explores male aggression and father-son bonds, and qualifies as vital American cinema.
Rare for a filmmaker working in commercial mode, Bahrani maintains the cynicism. Quaid, in sync, doesn’t get mushy and gives Henry just enough decency to allow him to emerge as a colorful and multidimensional embodiment of the persistence and the perversion of the American dream.
The cast also includes Red West, playing Henry’s disappointed father, whose sentiments echo in Henry’s feelings toward Dean. Newcomer Maika Monroe shines as Dean’s young girlfriend, who accompanies Henry on his salesman trips and displays surprising business savvy.
At Any Price
Starring Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Maika Monroe
Written by Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Ramin Bahrani
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes