"At Any Price" is an engrossing if somewhat over-the-top "trouble on the farm" melodrama.
The troubles facing this corner of Iowa fall just short of Biblical as they pack in everything but a drought and plagues of locusts.
Indie director Ramin Bahrani leaves behind the spare, mournful character studies that made his name -- films like "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye, Solo." Here, he's a kid in a cinematic candy store, delivering an embarrassment of character-actor riches.
Dennis Quaid is Henry Whipple, not the stoic, righteous farmer of our collective memory but a grinning, back-slapping hustler. The new "expand or die" ethos in farming isn't new to him.
"When a man stops wanting, a man stops living" he preaches, even showing up at funerals to get an inside track on a dead man's acreage.
Henry learned this from his hard-bitten old man ( Red West of "Goodbye Solo"). "Don't you LOSE what my daddy started," the old man barks.
Henry has plans to pass on his farm to his oldest, but that kid hasn't come home from college. There's no point in pitching the legacy to his youngest son, Dean ( Zac Efron). Dean is ashamed of what his dad has become, and is hellbent on becoming a NASCAR star, learning his craft at the local dirt track. He rejects Dad's overtures and busts into out-of-town auto parts stores to customize his race car.
His high school-age girlfriend Cadence ( Maika Monroe, a real find) is from a troubled home and lives with the Whipples, where Henry tries to give her "life lessons." But with Dad cheating the genetically modified seed company he works for and cheating with the co-op secretary ( Heather Graham, playing another in a long line of tramps), only Mom ( Kim Dickens, terrific) seems to grasp what they all miss: "Why can't you be happy with what's right in front of you?"
The film grapples with a household full of broken dreams. Henry, given a marvelous brave-front-on-a-drowning-man take by Quaid, is losing his hold on his bio-seed client base to another aggressive salesman farmer ( Clancy Brown). Mom ruefully watches PBS travel shows and wonders if she'll ever get to take a trip with this round-the-clock business they've bought into. Dean's NASCAR hopes and Cadence's dreams of Dean are all in for a test.
Bahrani piles melodramatic flourishes on top of this solid base of characters and almost overwhelms the film at times. But then Quaid's Henry will flinch in the presence of his taskmaster father, or Brown will show us a side never seen in his lifetime of character roles.
Graham will wince at the realization of what her character is and Monroe will wear the hurt of one last "life lesson" that isn't from Henry.
Beneath all the melodrama, beyond the fine performances, what sets "At Any Price" apart is the depiction of farming as it is today, the salesmanship, the traditions and ideals abandoned for greater profits and easier work and the ruthless world these patented "high yield" seeds have made. If the Whipples aren't the poor but proud Joads of "The Grapes of Wrath," or the embattled Ivys of "Country," it's because they've been remade by the changing landscape they work in and twisted by what it takes to thrive in this toxic environment.
"At Any Price" could just as easily be titled "At What Cost."
AT ANY PRICE
3 stars (Grade: B)
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Maika Monroe
Directed by Ramin Bahrani, written by Ramin Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:45
MPAA rating: R for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language
Photo/Video credit: Vesic Photography