In the heartlands of Iowa, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) runs a moderately successful corn farm – big enough that he’s just been able to buy 200 extra acres, but still far behind his major competitor Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). His hope was that his eldest son Grant would be able to take over the farm, but Grant’s gone travelling, with no sign of returning, so he’s forced to consider black sheep Dean (Zac Efron) who has his own dreams of making it to NASCAR. Their plans come to a head when Dean finally gets a tryout for ARCA (the next step down from NASCAR), just as his father comes under investigation for illegally cleaning and reselling the genetically modified seeds he uses to plant his crops. Their conflicting dreams are set to shatter not only their own lives, but also those of Henry’s wife (Kim Dickens) and Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (newcomer Maika Monroe).
It’s a film on a fairly intimate scale, but dealing with big, modern themes – the cost of the American dream (as the title might suggest), the destructiveness of competition, the sacrifices parents make for their children and vice versa, and what people will do in order to survive. And being told in the form of an good old-fashioned melodrama, closer to “Giant” or “Death Of A Salesman” then anything else, it risks being unfashionable.
And we'd hope folks will embrace those textures, even if we don’t unreservedly love the film. The film is very, very different in some ways to Bahrani’s earlier work, with sweeping widescreen compositions of the Midwestern landcape, and a shift from using essentially non-professional actors to parts that are designed to showcase bigger names. And the allegory within the picture isn't especially subtle – Bahrani showing the sacrifices made in the name of capitalism (the title is there for a reason…) may rankle some.
The performances are also inconsistent. Efron starts strongly, very reminiscent of twenty-something Tom Cruise somehow (maybe it was just the race driver uniform), but the strain sometimes shows as his character moves into self-destructive inarticulacy. It’s probably his best performance to date, but James Dean he ain’t, at least at this stage. The ever-underrated Kim Dickens (“Deadwood,” “Treme”) is nuanced as Irene, Henry’s wife, but the part is severely underwritten. Most out-of-place of all is Heather Graham, as Meredith, a local woman who has dalliances with both father and son. The existence of the role doesn’t do much but add an extraneous Oedipal layer of sizzle to the plot, but that could be forgiven with a better performance: instead, Graham is deeply wooden and uncharismatic.
Which is not to say that he’s the only good thing about it. We can see why some might not roll with the melodramatic plotting and the less-than-opaque metaphors. But for all its flaws, we found the film powerful, engaging and, by the finale, moving. And in the end, "At Any Price" is certainly one of the most impressive reactions to the recent economic crisis (because that’s exactly what it is) that cinema has produced so far. [B]