Ramin Bahrani is one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today, and heretofore his work has forced its way into some fairly obscure corners of the American experience. He immersively explored the fatalistic worlds of a pushcart operator from Pakistan in 2005’s Man Push Cart, a teenage Hispanic orphan hustling a living in Queens in 2007’s Chop Shop and a Senegalese taxi driver keeping vigil over an apparently suicidal man in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2009’s Goodbye Solo. Now he has trained his focus on the American heartland, onto a father and son in Iowa.
While the film lacks the sense of hyper-reality of Bahrani’s earlier work and employs several recognizable stars, in no sense does At Any Price seem a commercially motivated grab at a broader audience. It is an uncomfortable movie, one that reminds me of a couple of rather obscure ’70s films - Stuart Rosenberg’s WUSA and John Huston’s Fat City - in its refusal to resolve into a love song to the underdog or a chorus of American triumphalism. In a way, it echoes Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s minor masterpiece from 1989, in its suggestion that there is the possibility of life after horror.
I imagine this is a film that will polarize audiences - before I watched it I asked my colleague Piers Marchant, who had seen the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, what he thought of it. Without going into detail, he told me he hadn’t liked it, and I can understand that. I don’t think Karen Martin, who watched it with me, liked the film much either, primarily because it offers us almost no sympathetic characters. But I did - or at least I think I respect it.
Granted, there is a stagy, arch quality to Dennis Quaid’s performance as Henry Whipple, an ambitious farmer who supplements his income by working as a sales rep for a large agribusiness concern that holds patents on genetically modified seeds, that borders on the risible. Henry’s less the noble yeoman than an unctuous huckster, desperate to retain his client base in the face of mounting competition. (And the character’s name is distracting, though I suppose plausible enough - in the 19th century there was a clergyman named Henry Whipple who famously advocated better treatment of Plains Indians.) Quaid is playing a weak and not particularly bright man who is just beginning to understand the precariousness of his situation, and I’m inclined to receive his performance as a layered and even brave work. Henry is a bad actor, an insubstantial phony, a loser without much of an interior life. You might read it differently.
Henry is desperate not to lose the family farm - he squirms under the disapproving gaze of his father, played by 70-year-old former Elvis bodyguard Red West as a taciturn bully. And so he becomes convinced that the only way to save the farm is to expand it. Further complicating Henry’s life are his two sons, neither of whom seems much interested in agriculture. Grant (Patrick W. Stevens), the older of the two (and Henry’s favorite), has run off to South America and is out of the picture, so Henry’s hopes rest on Dean (Zac Efron), a rebellious sort whose ambition is to be a stock car racer. But, like the absent Grant, Dean can’t wait to get away from the farm - and his father.
This leads Henry to cut some corners, which lands him in trouble with his bosses at the agribusiness giant. Meanwhile he’s using every trick at his disposal to try to sell the feckless Dean on the agrarian dream, even as his son’s dreams of NASCAR seem suddenly obtainable.
Neither of these Whipple men is particularly kind to their significant others. Whipple matriarch Irene (the reliable Kim Dickens) stands by her cheating husband and dotes on her punk kid, but Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) does the sensible thing and lights out for the West Coast after engaging in some Heather Graham shaming.
And while Efron looks a bit too dreamy to make a convincing farm boy, let’s credit him for trying hard to evolve beyond his teen idol image and working hard to make Dean into a real, live, doomed boy.
Bahrani’s films are never easily reducible to formulae, and At Any Price defies any sort of clean synopsis. It will suffice to say that it feels like a great American tragedy, like East of Eden or Death of a Salesman. There’s a novelistic texture to the film - a fidelity to the way things actually work themselves out in the real world, in compromise and half-measures and moral doubt.
At Any Price 88 Cast: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Maika Monroe
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Rating: R, for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language
Running time: 105 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 05/31/2013
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