“Expand or die!” the seed company rep proclaims, and Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is listening. He owns nearly four thousand acres of Iowa farmland, passed down to three generations yet greeted with disinterest from his two boys. One’s off exploring South America while the other, Dean (Zac Efron), has his sights set on racing stock cars. Worse yet, Henry is losing his local standing in seed sales to Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) and his own highly motivated son, and he continues to cheat on devoted wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with younger fling Meredith (Heather Graham).
It’s not the only regard in which Henry is cheating; for all of his best intentions, this all-American farmer is falling behind in the rat race and is desperate to keep his land, and legacy, in good standing. It’s through this prism of classical melodrama that Ramin Bahrani sees “At Any Price,” in which characters reap what they sow in myriad ways, but what is pitched as something of an operatic morality play comes off as so overwrought initially that the film’s late ironies are but a modest consolation that Bahrani does indeed have more in mind than literal and figurative corn.
At the start, “Price” tends to be the kind of film where men stare off into the night and defiantly declare their intentions to save this farm, where women warn girls that they might grow up to make the exact same mistakes. Subtlety is hardly at home here, with Quaid’s especially earnest performance a well-suited mask for Henry’s desperation that nonetheless amplifies the phoniness of the entire enterprise. Efron does a better job of conveying his long-stewing resentments with nary a word spoken, but every bit of dialogue that does come out of his mouth is similarly keyed into obvious angst.
Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton have clearly done their research with regards to modern-day crop concerns, but the farming jargon is served up so matter-of-factly that it mutes the very particular threat of what might prove to be Henry’s undoing, even with Dean’s girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), tagging along to act as an audience surrogate in order to learn the hard truths about genetically-patented seed sales and old-fashioned neighborly charm. Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” may not have been much more subtle in its recent portrait of the economically upset state of rural America, but it benefited at least from a directorial sensibility that fell in line with the devious swagger of its own salesman protagonist and gently romanticized the modern farmer’s way of life in a manner that neither Bahrani nor Quaid care to match.
Of course, with so many prodigal sons and sinful fathers running about, the female characters are often given short shrift, despite the best efforts of Monroe, Graham and Dickens (the latter of whom is eventually asked to retread Laura Linney’s climactic speech of support from “Mystic River” at the same point in this film). For the longest while, “Price” is best at accentuating the noble isolation of its characters regardless of gender, particularly during a pre-race rendition of the National Anthem where all stand alone, together, in the stands, singing their nation’s praises while silently questioning one another’s interests.
Then the third act comes, and with it a seemingly insurmountable dilemma for our characters that may not come as a tremendous surprise, yet finally galvanizes each lead’s performance, raises the stakes and lends resonance to the film’s title. It’s just enough honest turmoil to alleviate the aw-shucks strokes of the first two acts, but it also marks a tonal turn just harsh enough that one wishes Bahrani had tipped his hand a bit sooner, so that his paean to corn rows and furrowed brows might have seemed more gripping, more heartbreaking, more true by the end.
SCORE: 5.5 / 10
"At Any Price" will be released in New York City tomorrow, and will expand across the country over the coming weeks.