As a movie icon, the American farmer has, for many a year, occupied a hand-whittled pedestal, standing tall as a weathered symbol of all that’s good and true in this screwed-up world. One of the galvanic surprises of “At Any Price,” the Iowa-set drama starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, is that it upends every cliché and worn-out romantic notion about farming and places it in the real world of agribusiness and high-stakes economic pressure.
Director Ramin Bahrani approaches the subject with the same journalist’s curiosity that made his earlier films, among them the pitch-perfect “Chop Shop,” such sharp depictions of otherwise invisible subcultures and the outsiders who inhabit them. Using a larger canvas and working for the first time with seasoned professional actors, he goes straight to the contemporary heartland in his new feature. From the movie’s moral-lesson title to its narrative turns, Bahrani sometimes pushes too hard as he reaches for big drama. But when the story works, it has a dark power that draws shrewdly upon his two leads’ screen charisma.
Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a third-generation farmer and a glad-hander of aggressive cheer. At first, his overly enunciated brand of can-do spirit raises the specter of overacting. But it’s the character who’s trying too hard, desperation straining that famous Quaid smile.
Henry has a lot to feel desperate about. His local supremacy as a salesman for Liberty Seeds (a Monsanto stand-in) is slipping, his father (Red West) cuts him no slack, and neither of his sons is interested in carrying on the family business. The eldest, on whom he’s pinned all his hopes, is off climbing mountains in South America, and younger son Dean (Efron) has his eyes set on a NASCAR career.
With his love of speed and brooding disdain for the dad who’s never had time for him, Efron’s character suggests James Dean in more than name. Already a minor celebrity on the local stock-car circuit, he’s also dangerously antsy and clearly headed for trouble, which arrives in the form of a third-act twist that, despite its obvious dramatic purpose, takes Quaid’s performance to wrenching depths.
Playing well off each other, Quaid and Efron inhabit a fine tension between possibility and despair. But Henry’s eyes change when he talks with Dean’s smart girlfriend, Cadence (strong, engaging work from up-and-comer Maika Monroe), as though he’s reconnecting with his own best nature. And she finds something to believe in, his wheezy platitudes notwithstanding.
Henry is a modern man, up against the banks and the bills, managing his 3,700 acres with state-of-the-art equipment and monitoring BlackBerry alerts on the price of corn. But more to the point, he’s a morally compromised and emotionally spent antihero, a Willy Loman whose patient wife (Kim Dickens) stands by him through increasingly challenging times, even knowing that he’s been carrying on with Meredith (Heather Graham).
The Whipples’ worries multiply when Liberty investigators zero in on Henry for violating his agreement concerning the reuse of genetically modified seeds. One of the film’s more instructive, and pointed, aspects involves the business of GMO patents and the economic stranglehold it places on individual farmers. Chelcie Ross plays an older local who’s especially feeling the strain, while Henry’s chief rival on the sales front (the excellent Clancy Brown) maintains an equilibrium that’s especially affecting in the story’s later stretches.
Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton don’t avoid didacticism as their characters lay out the facts about the state of the American family farm; dialogue delivers their themes too insistently. But with its fine eye for detail, “At Any Price” is also a complicated and revelatory look at the intersection of country folk and corporate might.
Cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ widescreen compositions of the land, its massive silos and wind turbines, suit the story’s fatalism, as does Dickon Hinchliffe’s omen of a score, which crescendos in a bone-chilling scene of summer celebration: The desperation is gone from Henry’s smile, but so is every trace of feeling.
‘At Any Price’
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, including a strong graphic image, and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; ArcLight, Hollywood