In the competitive world of modern agriculture, ambitious Henry Whipple wants his rebellious son Dean to help expand his family's farming empire. However, Dean has his sights set on becoming a professional race car driver. When a high-stakes investigation into their business is exposed, father and son are pushed into an unexpected crisis that threatens the family's entire livelihood. Written by
Sony Pictures Classics
Sometimes, a movie character's stress is so all-encompassing and so consuming in his or her world that you begin to feel it in your own world, regardless of whether or not you've experience what they're going through. Director Ramin Bahrani, if nothing else, articulates internal conflicts and mental pressure beautifully in his latest offering At Any Price, a landmark in his film career as it is the most mainstream release a film of his has gotten and I'm sure numerous people still haven't heard about it.
This is my introduction to Bahrani's work as a feature film director. His short film, simply titled "Paper Bag," was, hear me out, a twenty minute long film focusing on a listless paper bag that would travel by the way of the wind and would encounter numerous animals and obstacles along the way. The short was narrated by iconic actor and director Werner Herzog and possessed such an absurdist beauty about it that was equal parts whimsical and heartwarming. I couldn't recommend it enough.
The film stars Dennis Quaid as Henry Whipple, owner of more than 3,000 acres of farmland in Iowa and the proud inheritor of Liberty Seeds, a company that sells and utilizes genetically-modified seeds. Henry hopes one day he'll be able to pass on the farm to his young son, like his dad did to him. However, his son Dean (Zac Efron) shows no interest in inheriting the farm, and sets his sights on being a race-car driver, competing in local events statewide in order to obtain money to perhaps make it that far. He is given encouragement by Cadence (Maika Monroe), his sort-of girlfriend, even though he begins to write her off as his aspirations begin to seemingly evolve into something. In need of help, with competition in the contemporary agriculture world increasing and the possibility of a scandal on Liberty Seeds becoming others' knowledge, Henry takes Cadence underneath his wing as an intern and introduces her to the world, while simultaneously trying to combat it.
It's clear that Bahrani didn't just want to use Iowa farmlands as a backdrop for his story. Him and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton admirably immerse themselves into the culture of competitive agriculture, and show audiences through board-meetings, shady deals, and family dialog just how stressful of an environment this is. But what At Any Price's ultimate goal is lies on how it portrays the search for values and morality when money and company-placement is what it all boils down to. This isn't a tiresome trudge through morality in terms of how each right and wrong is rewarded, but rather it's about the choices we make and how we want to be seen by others. Henry seems like he once started out as an honest, moral man of his word, but now, he possesses the transparency, the attitude, and the fake smile akin to that of a politician. His son Dean is lost in the idea of trying to find himself when his father is not showing the characteristics of a role model or a caring member of his family. He worries about position and what the public thinks they know about him. This leads Dean to do things in the film he will later regret, if he chooses to reconnect with the path of kinder humanism.
A story like this is only levied by performances, and thankfully the likes of Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron offer remarkably maturing ones. Quaid is an actor somewhat like Nicolas Cage and Robert De Niro in the way he chooses sometimes completely asinine film roles that clearly do not challenge him in ways we love to seem him challenged. But every so often, Quaid - like Cage and De Niro - will choose an offbeat film role and knock it out of the park. Scarcely has stress on a film character been so evident and relatable and this is thanks to a performance of remarkable quality by Quaid. Efron, as well, after hanging in the teen-girl crowd for a bit too long with films like High School Musical, 17 Again, and Charlie St. Cloud that, while maybe fun on an escapist level, do not give him the appropriate amount of human leverage he deserves. In At Any Price, he evokes a much more mature persona than we've seen him, and if he can't tolerate the lack of limelight and publicity a film like this brings, I see no reason why he wouldn't continue to do films like these.
This is one the heaviest character-pieces I've come across this year. Not a lot happens in the film, but what does is subtle and strong in terms of furthering an encompassing theme. The film could be mistaken for sending mixed signals due to its unfocused nature, be a bit impulsive with some plot-strands not developing enough, and be criticized as too methodical because of several scenes relying on time passing and location. I agree with all of these points on some level, but feel the large majority of criticism has missed the mark because it doesn't give the film credit for attempting to articulate something that is greatly becoming grayer and grayer and that is what we, as humans, value in life. We like to think of ourselves as kind, gentle people, but when several outlets bombard us with dehumanizing stereotypes, images of pure cruelty, and the degradation of a moral compass and an increase in narcissistic, arrogant importance - especially in American culture - it's becoming a bit disconcerting in how nihilistic and careless we have become as a whole. At Any Price tries to magnify this concern, but on a much smaller scale, and remarkably succeeds in some very difficult aspects - especially considering it features a story that can easily be written off as noneventful.
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