The Midwest farm, she ain’t what she used to be, many long years ago. That’s the sociological underpinning of Ramin Bahrani’s new film At Any Price, in which agribusiness puts the squeeze on an Iowa farming family.
Taking inspiration from iconic forebears like Death of a Salesman and Hud, Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton set down on a 3,000-acre farm where three generations of Whipple men have worked the land. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) would like to see at least one of his sons show an interest in one day running the farm, but the elder boy Grant has relinquished his golden-boy status and gone away to see the world, leaving his younger brother Dean (Zac Efron) to feel the brunt of Dad’s expectations.
Dean’s attentions are elsewhere—on the local stock-car racing circuit (which he hopes will be his ticket to NASCAR) and on his hot-blonde girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe)—but it appears Henry has greater and more immediate concerns. With his farm leveraged in the millions, he’s had to double as a salesman for Liberty Seeds, a Monsanto surrogate that has effectively taken ownership of American farms by enforcing its patents on GMO corn. Worse, Henry’s sales numbers are threatened by a rival salesman (Clancy Brown) ever-ready to poach accounts.
At Any Price works best when it sticks close to Henry, whose broad grin fails to mask a growing desperation. Quaid not only makes a believably corn-fed patriarch, but he captures the mien of one who is slowly ceding his soul: in his willingness to do anything to stay successful, loved, and happy, Henry increases the likelihood of losing it all. He appears to be guilty of unethical business practices (with investigators breathing down his neck), he relentlessly pushes his sons, and he steps out on his loyal wife (Kim Dickens, excellent as ever) with a gal (Heather Graham) whose loyalty he hasn’t earned.
Though Efron gives one of his more palatable performances, his clichéd storyline just isn’t very compelling, especially in comparison to what’s going on with Henry. When a plot turn forces Dean to need his father even more than Henry needs Dean, their under-duress meeting of minds lends the story an unexpected tragic weight, but prior to that climax, the scenes with Dean seem to be time-killers with a character that never amounts to much more than a plot device.
Still, if Dean evaporates, Henry resonates, as emblematic of an American economy—and American soul—in crisis. And even if making a move toward the mainstream, after such micro-indies as Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, stymies Bahrani a bit in his conflicting impulses toward realism and the broader sweep and cinematic classicism afforded by the wide-open, widescreen-friendly Midwest setting and movie stars (not to mention the race cars), the subject of the changing farm landscape feels fresh, and the stinging critiques of corporate greed and mutable personal values are enough to make At Any Price a thought-provoking drama.