Film Review: At Any Price

Tale of conflict between an Iowa farmer and his rebellious racecar-driver son goes to darker places than the usual heartland drama.

After making the rounds of major film festivals like Venice, Toronto and Telluride in 2012 and beyond, Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price finally arrives on commercial screens in late April. It’s the kind of character-driven drama that used to be a staple of the major studios but has now been relegated to the art house. Breaking out beyond the specialty market will be more of a challenge in this case because those characters aren’t especially likeable, however much they represent the struggle of today’s farmer in an increasingly industrialized business.

Dennis Quaid, currently in his first regular TV gig on the CBS series “Vegas,” returns to movie leading-man chores as Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who’s embraced the modern methods of growing genetically modified corn and expanded his property to 3,000 acres. When we first meet Henry, we see the kind of aggressiveness that fueled his success, as he corners a mourning heir at a funeral and tries to make a deal for the land his father left behind. Henry’s oldest son Grant, a onetime college football star, has left the farm to satisfy his craving for travel and adventures, leaving Henry to place his hopes on younger son Dean (Zac Efron), who is a star on the local stock-car racing circuit and dreams of NASCAR glory. Needless to say, father and son don’t share the same vision for the future.

Director Bahrani and his co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton don’t go out of their way to endear either character to the audience. Henry is cheating on his patient wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with a pretty blonde named Meredith (Heather Graham), and Dean isn’t above shooting out a store window to steal an expensive part for his car. Beyond his extramarital affair, Henry harbors a more potentially damaging secret: He’s been violating his contract as a salesman for agri-giant Liberty Seeds by selling re-used GMO corn seed.

As fate (and screenplays) would have it, Dean’s chief nemesis on the racing circuit is the son of Henry’s most formidable sales rival, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). That double animus leads to a startling confrontation which takes At Any Price to an unexpectedly dark and disturbing new level.

Bringing much-needed heart to the film is Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (appealing newcomer Maika Monroe), who comes from a dysfunctional family and develops a tender bond with both father and son. (In fact, after joining Henry on his business rounds, she reveals a natural talent for sales.)

Quaid and Efron (once again branching out impressively from his teen-idol roots) are each unafraid to show the less savory aspects of their characters’ small-town charisma. (From that opening scene at the funeral, it’s clear what festers beneath Henry’s blustery charm offensive.) Ultimately, At Any Price is a tragic story, but it’s a tragedy that doesn’t necessarily resolve in the way you’d expect. Like all that artificially manipulated seed, there’s something happening below the surface these characters don’t want to acknowledge.