Directed by: Ramin Bahrani .
Written by: Ramin Bahrani & Hallie Elizabeth Newton.
Starring: Dennis Quaid (Henry Whipple), Zac Efron (Dean Whipple), Kim Dickens (Irene Whipple), Dan Waller (Larry Brown), Clancy Brown (Jim Johnson), Ben Marten (Brad Johnson), Matthew Petersen (Brett Johnson), Heather Graham (Meredith Crown), Red West (Cliff Whipple).
Ramin Bahrani’s first three films – Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008) were all low budget films in the neo-realist tradition (especially the first two). They didn’t make all that much money, but attracted quite a bit of attention – particularly by Roger Ebert, who adored all three films, and though Bahrani was the next great American filmmaker. Ebert loved Bahraini’s fourth film – At Any Price – as well, and while I agreed with Ebert on the first three, I really cannot on this one. It’s not that Bahrani has sold out – he hasn’t, despite the presence of known stars for the first time in his films – just that the film doesn’t really have all that much to say – or at least not nearly as much as it thinks it does. After watching the film, I definitely asked the question “Is that all there is?”
The movie takes place in the American Mid-West, where family owned farms are quickly becoming a thing of the past – being replaced by agriculture giants. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has one of those farms – but he makes most of his money selling seeds to other farmers for one of those large corporations. These are not any seeds of course – but genetically modified seeds. They grow bigger, better produce – and the good news is, customers have to keep coming back for more. In the old days, you could collect your own seeds, wash them, and replant them the next year. But even though these seeds are on your property – you can’t do that anymore. They remain the property of companies who sold them to you. Henry is the number 1 salesman in several counties – but is trailing Jim Johnson State Wide – so he looks to get any advantage he can.
Henry has two sons – one of whom has essentially run off, wanting no part of the family business, and the other Dean (Zac Efron) trying to do the same thing. He wants to race cars – and is great on the small tracks he races on – but knows he needs to get bigger if he’s ever going to be free of his father, and the family business. Of course, he also has a rivalry with Brad Johnson, Jim’s son, and we know from the outset it isn’t going to end well.
I’m not quite sure what Bahrani’s point with At Any Price is. If it’s to show the inner workings of modern agriculture in America, then he really doesn’t tell us anything new. Are we supposed to be outraged by Henry’s actions? Or feel sympathy for a man caught up in a system that is pretty much rigged for him to lose? In any case, it must be said that the best thing about the movie is Dennis Quaid’s excellent performance as Henry – who has the smile and easy charm of a used car salesman, and is just as trustworthy, and yet still manages to get the audience’s begrudging sympathy. The trickier character is Efron’s Dean – but I don’t think Bahrani ever really gets a handle on him. If we feel sympathy for Henry, we don’t for Dean – who treats his girlfriend like crap, and behaves like a selfish lout for the vast majority of the film’s running time. If the point of the final scene is to show that he has finally sold out, it doesn’t work – mainly because I don’t think Dean really believed in anything anyway.
The title, of course, refers to the motto that the two main characters seem to live by – they are willing to win “At Any Price” necessary. Had Bahrani made a better, more complete film, perhaps he could have shown just how ruthless people like Henry can be – how he really is willing to win at any price, and still managed to make him sympathetic. That was Bahrani’s goal in the film – and had he pulled it off, he may have made one of the year’s best films. But if anything, At Any Price shows what a tricky balancing act that type of film can be, and Bahrani comes up well short of his aim on this one.