While the 1980s farm movies (“Places in the Heart,” “Country,” “The River”) tended to be about single-family agrarians fighting the banks to keep their patches of land, “At Any Price” delves into the survivors who have managed to hang on to their farms into the 21st century, now being urged to “expand or die” by grabbing up neighboring parcels.
For writer-director Ramin Bahrani, “At Any Price” represents a different kind of expansion — after winning awards and critical raves for acclaimed micro-budget films like “Chop Shop” and “California Solo,” with nary a movie star in sight, now he’s working with the likes of Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron in the endless cornfields that seems like they’re on another planet from the gritty urban settings of his early work.
Something’s been lost in the upgrade, unfortunately — Bahrani has built a reputation for intricately defined characters and precise plotting, but “At Any Price” feels like a series of note cards (“father-son conflict,” “dad’s mistress hits on son”) that never weave together to make a gripping plot.
Farmer and seed salesman Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is, in true “Glengarry Glen Ross” style, always closing, whether he’s glad-handing his clientele, swooping into funerals to buy land off of disinterested out-of-town relatives or trying to convince his son Dean (Zac Efron) to leave stock-car racing behind and follow him in the family business. (The older, prodigal son has just graduated from Iowa State but has decided to go mountain climbing in Argentina rather than come home and follow in dad’s footsteps.)
There’s plenty happening here — Dean gets the chance to try out for NASCAR, Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) becomes Henry’s protégé after showing a surprising aptitude for seed salesmanship, Henry’s wife Irene (Kim Dickens) keeps the peace at home but still busts Henry for his flagrant affair with his secretary (Heather Graham) – but none of this builds to anything, forcing the movie to rely on a third-act Terrible Tragedy that happens under some giant wind turbines that might as well have a sign on them that reads “FATE METAPHOR."
If there’s one big flaw that keeps “At Any Price” from connecting the way it should, it’s that the movie keeps telling us — mainly through Dean’s hostility and his brother’s passive absence — that Henry is a terrible father, but even though the character is flawed and admittedly corrupt, we never quite find out what he’s done to deserve such rancor from his sons.
It’s a problem in Bahrani and Hallie Newton’s screenplay, yes, but it might also be that Quaid tends to be so very charismatic that the audience is more willing to forgive him than the other characters seem to be.
Also miscast is Efron, in yet another performance that shows he’s a racehorse dying to be a mule. Yes, yes: handsome teen idols have to radically overhaul their image to be taken seriously as actors, but the star of “High School Musical” never seems believable as a hard-drinking, hard-loving, two-fisted stock-car racer with a chip on his shoulder.
Surely there’s a way for this actor to play to his considerable strengths and simultaneously shake off his Disney Channel past, but he hasn’t found it yet.
The women come off better: Dickens (full disclosure, she and I were college classmates) gets in some powerful moments opposite Quaid and Efron, revealing Irene as the true core of the family, and relative newcomer Monroe creates a character so organic and compelling that I started wanting the movie to be about her.
She and Quaid have a wonderfully eccentric chemistry, and someone should cast these two as father and daughter pronto. (Given the rules of Hollywood, five years from now she’ll be playing his wife.)
Cinematographer Michael Simmonds (“Big Fan,” “Project Nim”) takes full advantage of both the vibrant colors (the green fields, the red barns) and the sweeping vistas of farm country, making “At Any Price” always compelling to look at even when the story and characters get lost in the maize.
Bahrani deserves another shot at larger budgets and bigger names, but this time, he’s plowed up his first disappointing crop.