By Benjamin Mercer
At Any Price
Dir. Ramin Bahrani, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
In 2009, right around the commercial release of Ramin Bahrani’s Taste of Cherry cover Goodbye Solo, A. O. Scott identified the director as a leading light of a flourishing “neo-neo-realism” movement afoot in American independent cinema. On the evidence of his subsequent work, Bahrani appears to have fled from the Times magazine’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 York–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 Bahrani’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 called—yes—Liberty. He’s grown the business bequeathed to him by a surly father (Red West) he still addresses as “sir,” and he’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 today’s agricultural industry, Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton would have us believe, such seemingly modest hopes for the future as Henry’s require the wholesale forsaking of any and all scruples—that’s just the climate out there, with large corporations pitting neighbor against neighbor in the interest of their own bottom lines. The movie’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 it’s something altogether more punishingly deterministic. The filmmakers also don’t want you to lose sight of the fact that Henry’s doing his damnedest to succeed within a system that’s designed expressly to make you fat—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 “home movies.” We then land in the middle of a mortifying errand, as Henry crashes a funeral in order to angle for a grieving family’s inherited land, his disapproving younger son, Dean (Zac Efron), reluctantly in tow. Dean’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 speed—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 he’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 racer—just another detour on his Friday-night joyride. And he’s not the only one carousing: We also glimpse the married Henry draped over Heather Graham’s one-dimensional good-time townie in her office after quitting time.
Money problems also soon mount. Dean’s mom, the devoted Irene (Kim Dickens), offers to withdraw from her personal account the $14,000 he needs to enter a Nascar showcase—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 Dean’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), who improbably takes to traveling with Henry on sales calls—and who, as the movie’s token have-not, is conveniently the only major character to keep her personal integrity intact. According to Henry, what he’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 didn’t exist in the simpler times before genetic modification. It’s a corner he feels that he has no choice but to cut, if he’s to make his father proud or to pass anything of appreciable value on to his sons. Meanwhile, Dean’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 greed—it’s only a matter of time, and not necessarily anything more complex in human terms.
Bahrani’s typically dead-set on showing an overlooked corner of the American scene—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 clichés, takes the cake, fashioning a caricature of dadliness that’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 anyone’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.