Director Ramin Bahrani is adept at presenting naturalistic glimpses into seldom-depicted cultures and places. For his latest drama, he showcases the surprisingly cutthroat world of competitive farming in Iowa. Yet despite that unique subject and a mesmerizingly odd performance by Dennis Quaid, At Any Price does little more than present family drama in an unfamiliar setting.
Quaid is Henry Whipple, a farmer and salesman trying to keep both his family and business together. He farms 3,700 acres, but the real money lies in the genetically modified seed corn he sells to his fellow Hawkeyes. To achieve those sales, Henry schmoozes his clients in such a nauseatingly fake way that even William H. Macy’s character from Fargo would feel creepy. It’s no wonder that profits begin to slip and Henry turns to alternative moneymaking methods.
Exacerbating those problems are the near-breakup of his marriage and alienation of his sons. An affair with the town floozy (Heather Graham) predictably draws the ire of his wife (Kim Dickens), while his eldest son, Grant, has left home and his youngest, Dean (Zac Efron), has his eyes on a career in NASCAR or anything that will get him off the farm.
As Henry sinks deeper into a personal and financial quagmire from which it may be impossible to extricate himself, he contemplates the meaning of life. “Isn’t there something more?” he wonders aloud. Well, I can’t answer for life, but as far as this film goes, there really isn’t.
What you see is what you get – and there’s not much on view here. But that’s also been said about Bahrani’s previous projects, in which he embraced an understated, spare style – so understated as to be almost non-existent. The overrated Chop Shop, for instance, is bursting with honesty and grittiness, but is so devoid of plot and pace that it’s just one step above a “mumblecore” film. The director’s Goodbye Solo also possessed a less-is-more quality, but the style worked there because of a gripping story and on-the-nail performances. Bahrani abandons that hyperrealism somewhat in At Any Price, which proves his remarkable flexibility, but the results will likely disappoint many of his fans.
Quaid gives a downright quirky performance that is fascinating to watch but isn’t quite pitch-perfect. That’s more than can be said for Efron and Graham, though, who are beautiful to look at but are miscast and ineffectual. With Graham, that’s not a big deal, since she’s in a throwaway role, but Efron’s inability to reach our hearts almost dooms the picture – and may soon doom his career. If not for the unexpectedly strong job of Clancy Brown as a rival salesman and Bahrani’s honest creation of rural life, this cinematic tapestry would be pulled apart by the unspectacular screenplay, erratic editing and poor pacing.
Considering its equal amount of positives and negatives, would I recommend At Any Price? Yes, but not at ANY price. For $10 in a theater? Probably not. For free on Netflix? Definitely.
★★★ (out of 5 stars)