A distinct air of desperation hangs over the head of each and every character in Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price. Given the title of this achingly earnest rural drama, that slight observation will likely come as little surprise; what may catch viewers off guard, however, are the many subtleties and nuances that Bahrani and screenwriting partner Hallie Elizabeth Newton employ in their attempts to drive home the point that we ourselves are sometimes to blame for our greatest hardships.
Former high-school quarterback Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has worked hard to maintain his father's lucrative farming empire. He always dreamt of passing the family business along to his beloved oldest son Grant, though when Grant leaves the farm to explore the world, Henry places his hopes for the future on the shoulders of his youngest son Dean (Zac Efron), who would rather be racing stock cars than working the soil. Meanwhile, fellow farmer Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) has been poaching away Henry’s customers while steadily expanding his own thriving business. As Henry attempts to win back those straying clients, Dean begins to make a name for himself on the local race circuit. A talented driver despite his reckless streak, Dean soon gets a shot at the big time thanks in large part to the support of his mother Irene (Kim Dickens) and his girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe), the latter of whom hails from a broken home, and has settled into a comfortable place amongst the Whipple clan. When a powerful producer of genetically modified seeds receives a tip that Henry has been cleaning and reselling their product, they launch a surprise investigation into his business that threatens to shut it down. With Henry’s future looking bleak as his younger lover (Heather Graham) sets her sights on Dean and the seed company expands the scope of their investigation, the desperate farmer finds that the worst is still yet to come when a tragic accident threatens to take it all away.
At Any Price feels like a film from a different era, one where measured storytelling and characterization took precedence over tight plotting, and pacing was secondary to establishing an immersive tone. In the era of comic-book blockbusters it’s easy to dismiss a movie like this one as willfully old-fashioned. Given Bahrani and Newton’s refusal to adapt to the contemporary rules of screenwriting, it’s tempting to view it as overreaching and underdeveloped as well. To be fair, there are moments in the film where it feels as if Bahrani and Newton are attempting to juggle too many details in telling what amounts to a rather simple story. For those watching attentively, however, it soon becomes apparent that At Any Price isn’t concerned with the clean resolution of any one individual hardship, but with how a family functions in difficult times when their expectations of one another don’t match the reality. In this movie, the mistakes that you’re certain will return to haunt a character sometimes fade away without a second thought, while the small gestures that at first seemed insignificant can swell into destructive waves. Whether you regard that shotgun approach to drama as hopelessly flawed or refreshingly realistic will largely dictate your enjoyment and appreciation of the film because Bahrani and Newton offer few easy answers.
One factor that not many will disagree on, however, is At Any Price’s uniformly strong cast. As the fourth-generation farmer whose desperation can be measured in the width of his unctuous smile, Dennis Quad turns in a career-highlight performance that’s perfectly anchored by Dickens as his clear-headed yet put-upon wife. Efron, meanwhile, once again proves to be more than a handsome face by evoking a believable blend of youthful rebellion, sibling resentment, and growing maturity as Henry’s volatile son. Although Heather Graham is largely forgettable as the home-wrecking floozy with precious little personality, emerging actress Maika Monroe not only gets to portray one of the picture’s only likable roles (alongside Dickens’ Irene), but she brings Cadence’s faltering innocence to the surface with real soul. In a film that focuses so much on the flaws of the characters, that may sound relatively easy, yet there’s an undeniable grace to her performance. Few would contend that At Any Price is a perfect movie in terms of structure or neatly wrapped storytelling, though for those seeking something a bit more rooted in reality, it does offer a compelling snapshot of one family’s struggle to live up to their expectations of themselves and each other in a time of great uncertainty. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan