With his social-realist cred from acclaimed festival hits 'Man Push Cart', 'Chop Shop' and 'Goodbye Solo', Bahrani appears to venture out with something more accessible in 'At Any Price'. The casting of familiar Hollywood actors like Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron promises to open up his fanbase beyond critics. Unfortunately, this picture is a mixed bag of soap opera melodrama and morally thought-provoking situations with his familiar salt of the earth characters, a blend which never coalesces into something memorable or believable.
At Any Price (2012) dir. Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham,
By Alan Bacchus
We’re in the Midwestern prairies and its small-town rural working class farmers. But it’s definitely not a quiet idyllic lifestyle. By the transactions of land owners, farmers, suppliers and dealers the business of corn is as competitive and cut-throat as big oil. Bahrani centres on the Whipple family, specifically Henry Whipple (Quaid) and Dean Whipple (Efron), father and son with two different views on life. Henry has inherited the family farm and treats his business as a typically aggressive capitalist enterprise. Dean, on the other hand, has gotten the short shrift in his family compared to his deified older brother, and he desires to become a champion race car driver.
Henry is pretty shady, typified by the opening scene in which he shamelessly tries to buy a man’s land from the son of a recently deceased land owner. And when he speaks to people, his pasted-on smile and false modesty wreaks of the most disreputable slime ball salesman.
For much of the film we’re waiting for the shoe to drop. Before then it’s a slow-burning character study of Dean and his contentious relationship with Henry. Henry’s shady dealings have treated him well, but his comeuppance is near and the Jenga tower of lies and deceit threatens to topple down due to a couple of key plot turns.
Though very little happens through two-thirds of the film, Bahrani admirably makes up for the slow burn by turning the screws extra tight on his characters in the third act. What’s revealed is a morally complex series of choices for Dean and Henry with immensely dramatic ramifications for them and the family.
Unfortunately, Bahrani falters in a number of places throughout. The imprecision with his tone is a distraction. For much of the time, we’re never quite sure whose film this is. When we realize its Dennis Quaid’s film, his miscasting or weak performance fails the film. At once Henry is an arrogant business man, but he's played with strange awe-shucks affability.
Zac Efron as the wild child living in the moment and on instinct recalls James Dean’s most famous roles in East of Eden and A Rebel Without a Cause. Efron's performance is the best, and his character is the most interesting. He has long since graduated from teen-mag stardom and is magnetic on screen. His blue eyes are beautifully expressive, and despite his handsomeness he can pull off the working class ruggedness of a young Tom Cruise.
Next to Zac is the fine character actor Kim Dickens as the pragmatic mom, Irene, who at every turn seems to be the only one who can see the forest from the trees. She easily sees past her husband’s attempts to hide his infidelity, yet her subdued response implies that she knows a divorce would make their precarious situation even worse. In the final act her acceptance of her husband’s even more diabolical scheme is outright breaking the law, but in accepting all of her husband's immoral behaviour she admirably takes ownership of the family and earns the title of the film.
The melodramatic soap opera plotting never really matches up with the slice-of-life realism of the first half of the film.