There is a difference between drama and dilemma. Unfortunately, director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani confuses the two. While his farmland melodrama is notably detailed in its depiction of rural life and, in many ways, skillfully directed, his screenplay — co-written with Hallie Elizabeth Newton — indulges in contrived father-son soap opera and clumsily inserted social messaging. At Any Price clearly wants to be about something, but gets hopelessly tangled up in amateur racing, sex in grain silos and even a bit of murder.
The insidious influences of modern capitalism are on full display in Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a glad-handing farmer who’ll do whatever it takes to grow the family farm. Buying up neighbors’ land at funerals and in bed with Monsanto, he’s a hard guy to like. Especially since he’s two-timing his wife with Heather Graham (who’s given some of the worst dialog I’ve heard in some time).
With a father (Red West) relentlessly accusing him of failing his family’s legacy, and a dead-eyed son (a petulant Zac Efron) more interested in becoming a NASACR driver and making it with his saucy girlfriend (Maika Monroe) than taking over the family farm, it’s no wonder Henry’s the nasty piece of work that he is.
Throw in a rival GMO seed salesman (the wonderfully oily Clancy Brown) and some potential illegal business practices and the stage has been set for a trashy Arthur Miller-like comeuppance.
Or, so one would hope. Too bad Bahrani’s film completely derails mid-way through the second act, as Efron’s story becomes more and more ludicrous and a final act twist arrives more out of writer desperation than story logic.
Which is a shame because, buried beneath the hysterical father-son dysfunction, there’s a deeper, more interesting story about how a man willingly sells his soul in pursuit of the American Dream. Bahrani has the balls to make Henry an unlikable protagonist, but seems unwilling to rigorously explore his movie’s more tantalizing themes — how both the man and his way of life has been corrupted by corporate control. Without any central thesis or transformation, however, At Any Price just kicks up a whole lot of dramatic dust without accomplishing anything.
The movie makes good use of Quaid’s grinning, blue-collar potency, but his character is all gestures and surfaces, lacking the man at stake beneath. Efron, on the other hand, comes off as more bratty than rebellious, and the friction between him and his pop neither generates heat nor warmth.
Too serious to be taken seriously, At Any Price might have succeeded had it had more of a black comic soul. Spotlighting the moral rot at the heart of American capitalism is rich ground for a humorous tale that indulges in ethical duplicity. There’s a real opportunity to link Henry’s blind optimism to the land he’s slowly turning sterile. Bahrani’s final assessment of society (and the title of his movie) — that everyone cheats so just be better at it than the next guy — may be a bold assertion, but by cluttering his tale with so many lurid plot turns it plays like a soapy night-time cable drama that sports John Deere caps instead of mansions. mt
At Any Price opens in theaters Friday, June 21, and is rated R with a running time of 105 minutes.
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