A great film, one underlined by sadness but ultimately is about the reconciliation of father and son. At Any Price is a literate drama that is about the trend of farming expansion (GMO is referenced), but it is also about community tensions, and of course, Dad (Dennis Quaid, startingly good) and Son (Zac Efron, not the empty shell I thought he was). “Price” is also perhaps the ultimate film to date about Iowa. This film cares about atmosphere, the lingo, the small-town rivalries. I have seen all four Ramin Bahrani films (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”), and this one might be his best. Comparable echoes to “The Last Picture Show” (1971) and “Giant” (1956) would not be an overstatement.
There is something to be said in this world of being a successful businessman and yet there is fragility that one can could still lose everything under competitive circumstances. Henry Whipple (Quaid) is aware of the “expansion or die” trends in the farming business. He’s built a very successful career, but somehow he’s put on the hustle when he loses a county account to a bigger rival millionaire. He then is under investigation for breaking regulations when he is suspected of reusing GMO seed. He is also cheating on his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with his secretary (Heather Graham, always down for a roll in the hay).
Henry’s favorite son is on an indefinite South American adventure, and second son Dean (Efron) is a stock car racer with a potential future in NASCAR. One of the sons must be groomed to take over the family business, and because of first-son’s absence, Henry hopes to pass it down to Dean. I’ve never found Efron to be a nice guy, in or out of movies, and maybe his conceited me-first attitude serves him well here. He even has the convincing mojo to steal Dad’s secretary.
But the shining star is Dennis Quaid. In hindsight, it’s “Far From Heaven” and now “At Any Price” that show this often swaggering actor the most outside of himself, stretching beyond his persona. His Henry Whipple is a corn-pone braggart when things are going well, a hustler when he’s in need to pick up more business. An early scene has him crashing a funeral and propositioning to buy the land, and Quaid has the ability to make an insensitive situation into an expression of neighborly cordiality – he’s taking a burden off their hands, is the attitude. Quaid employs a local hayseed accent, sometimes cartoonishly in order to be an affable salesman. But he’s smart and shrewd.
Tragedy is something we wince at in real life but when it comes to the movies a brilliant dramatic tragedy often fascinates us. Bahrani’s film builds and builds, the way classical narrative did in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. I only wish the film had penetrated the GMO craze more comprehensively. Still, as an Iowa saga, a father and son tug-of-war drama, and as a classical tragedy, “At Any Price” is not to be overlooked.
105 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / TEENS AND ADULTS / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Film Cousins: “Giant” (1956); “The Last Picture Show” (1971); “Field of Dreams” (1989); “Food Inc.” (2008).