By Benjamin Mercer
At Any Price
Dir. Ramin Bahrani, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
In 2009, right around the commercial release of Ramin Bahraniâ€™s Taste of Cherry cover Goodbye Solo, A. O. Scott identified the director as a leading light of a flourishing â€śneo-neo-realismâ€ť movement afoot in American independent cinema. On the evidence of his subsequent work, Bahrani appears to have fled from the Times magazineâ€™s designation, while at the same time not technically forsaking his broadband interest in the exigencies of life on the margins. The director of the New Yorkâ€“set immigrant tales Man Push Cart and Chop Shop immediately followed the somewhat higher-fi Solo with a larkish digital short called Plastic Bag, in which Werner Herzog narrated the life and times of the wind-whipped title object. The trick was that those chance movements became all of a sudden endowed with a mythical significance, with the lowly pollutant appearing to take on some Real Feelings to boot. Is it possible that Bahraniâ€™s prior insistent humanism felt somewhat canned because it arose from a similar top-down exercise-in-perspective impulse?
Now comes the feature-length At Any Price, a movie that takes many hairpin turns through the cornfields of Iowa, where a man named Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) proffers stiff backslaps to his fellow citizens, while attempting to steer his family business through the unforgiving expand-or-die realities of modern-day Medium Ag. Henry, a cauldron of resentments constantly straining to pass himself off as a sunny sitcom dad, works double duty farming his own expanse of land and distributing seed for a company calledâ€”yesâ€”Liberty. Heâ€™s grown the business bequeathed to him by a surly father (Red West) he still addresses as â€śsir,â€ť and heâ€™s desperate to bring his two sons into the fold as well. In a startlingly strange performance Quaid himself appears desperate to convey just how desperate his character is, occasionally bringing this heartland story to the panicked pitch of a good old-fashioned heir-to-the-crown crisis.
In todayâ€™s agricultural industry, Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton would have us believe, such seemingly modest hopes for the future as Henryâ€™s require the wholesale forsaking of any and all scruplesâ€”thatâ€™s just the climate out there, with large corporations pitting neighbor against neighbor in the interest of their own bottom lines. The movieâ€™s representative Iowans, then, are almost uniformly devoid of any meaningful agency, slaves to a system all too eager to reduce them to whimpering sellouts. At Any Price might affect the deliberate advance of a snagged-cross-purposes human drama, but under the hood itâ€™s something altogether more punishingly deterministic. The filmmakers also donâ€™t want you to lose sight of the fact that Henryâ€™s doing his damnedest to succeed within a system thatâ€™s designed expressly to make you fatâ€”at one point the salesman hits the road with a cooler full of candy bars, asking whether his prospective customers have had any breakfast while holding forth his stocked treasure chest of high-fructose corn syrup.
The ground-up naturalism barely even survives the opening credit sequence, a reel of flimsily realized and unconvincingly off-the-cuff Whipple â€śhome movies.â€ť We then land in the middle of a mortifying errand, as Henry crashes a funeral in order to angle for a grieving familyâ€™s inherited land, his disapproving younger son, Dean (Zac Efron), reluctantly in tow. Deanâ€™s golden-boy older brother, Grant, has embarked on a Grand Tour, his postcards from abroad signaling the dwindling prospects of his coming back anytime soon, but stock-car trophy winner Dean has an all-consuming need for speedâ€”and thus no inkling of interest in acquiring a stake of the family concern. The glaze-eyed Efron sells the knee-jerk dismissal of the family legacy better than the heedless high jinks that heâ€™s called upon to take part in. Early on, we see the young man shoot out a plate-glass storefront window in order to steal a part for his homemade racerâ€”just another detour on his Friday-night joyride. And heâ€™s not the only one carousing: We also glimpse the married Henry draped over Heather Grahamâ€™s one-dimensional good-time townie in her office after quitting time.
Money problems also soon mount. Deanâ€™s mom, the devoted Irene (Kim Dickens), offers to withdraw from her personal account the $14,000 he needs to enter a Nascar showcaseâ€”without telling Dad. Meanwhile, someone tips Liberty investigators that Henry is cleaning and reselling his seeds from year to year. He eventually admits his wrongdoings to Deanâ€™s wrong-side-of-the-tracks girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), who improbably takes to traveling with Henry on sales callsâ€”and who, as the movieâ€™s token have-not, is conveniently the only major character to keep her personal integrity intact. According to Henry, what heâ€™s done is akin to pirating DVDs, the proprietary seeds having their own copyright of sorts. He remarks wistfully that such complicated rules and regulations didnâ€™t exist in the simpler times before genetic modification. Itâ€™s a corner he feels that he has no choice but to cut, if heâ€™s to make his father proud or to pass anything of appreciable value on to his sons. Meanwhile, Deanâ€™s attempts to monetize his thrills behind the wheel make him ever more unpleasant to be around. Bahrani thus patrols the borderland where the American-dream enterprise begins to shade over into looking-out-for-number-one greedâ€”itâ€™s only a matter of time, and not necessarily anything more complex in human terms.
Bahraniâ€™s typically dead-set on showing an overlooked corner of the American sceneâ€”he and longtime DP Michael Simmonds take in all manner of high-tech farm equipment and give the dust-kicking amateur automobile races an illicit edge. But At Any Price otherwise feels deeply confused, performing a number of character-motivation sketches before succumbing to cutthroat-capitalism boilerplate amid a welter of hard-to-credit plot twists and some overly mannered acting. Quaid, gesticulating up a storm and booming self-helpy clichĂ©s, takes the cake, fashioning a caricature of dadliness thatâ€™s a poor fit for the ever darkening story, which in time calls for the Whipple men to literally bury the competition. What milieu Bahrani will set his sights on next is anyoneâ€™s guess, though hopefully he will reap more from it than he does from this hybrid of GMO issue movie and domestic melodrama. Here it appears that life on the farm is particularly unnatural.