At first glance, "At Any Price" looks like the latest film in a certain genre, the nostalgic but doomed look back at the good ol' days in America. It focuses on a long-held family farm that, thanks to modern agribusiness, must "expand or die," as the movie succinctly puts it.
But "At Any Price" is a lot more surprising -- and a lot smarter -- than you might expect. The rural patriarch just trying to save his farm and his family, against all odds, turns out to be the most cunning character in the story.
It helps the film immensely that he's played by Dennis Quaid. We're used to Quaid being so likeable, but the leading man has been taking on more interesting roles lately. Put farmer Henry Whipple in the list that already includes Clay Hammond from last year's "The Words."
|'At Any Price'|
|» Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars|
|» Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron|
|» Director: Ramin Bahrani|
|» Rated: R for sexual content including a strong graphic image and language|
|» Running time: 105 minutes|
Henry is certainly a friendly, outgoing guy, but we sense quickly that there's something off about his good-natured smile. Our suspicions are confirmed as soon as he tries to conduct business at a funeral. The dead man's kids are disgusted by Henry's offer to buy their land -- as is Henry's rebellious son Dean (Zac Efron). But a few minutes after telling him off, they find him and accept his offer. Henry's smile just gets bigger.
Henry isn't just an Iowa corn farmer; he's also a seed salesman for a big company clearly modeled on Monsanto. But another salesman is just as intent on expanding or dying, and he'll play dirty to do it. Henry's conscience is already a bit tattered -- the married man is carrying on an affair with an old girlfriend (played by Heather Graham -- so it's not a stretch for the desperate man to decide to play even dirtier.
Director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani doesn't take any of the expected easy outs. One would have been making the agri-corporation the bad guy. But it, like every other business -- including farming -- is run by people, and it's the good and bad decisions people make that are at the heart of every well-told story.
There is a bit of melodrama here, mainly in the relationship between father and son -- the son, of course, wants to escape the family farm and Iowa entirely. But that's easily forgotten when we see one of Bahrani's many masterly scenes, such as an early one in which the American anthem is sung and characters are more fully delineated.
"Why can't you be happy with what's right in front of you?" Henry's wife (played by Kim Dickens) asks him in exasperation. But that sort of dissatisfaction is at the heart of American greatness, as well as failure.