It is my sacred duty as a film critic to complain that movie studios too often make movies about superheroes, franchises, special effects: anything but the real, recognizable people we crave to see onscreen. But I’m afraid I must break rank when discussing At Any Price, the new film by Ramin Bahrani. It is the kind of movie that makes basic understanding and observation of human behavior seem like a Herculean task, best not attempted lest you make a movie that, in attempting to explain a particular culture, feels positively alien.
At Any Price takes a look at farming in the 21st century, and viewers unfamiliar with this world, as I was, may be drawn in by its details — at least initially. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is ostensibly a farmer, but he’s expected to behave more like a combination CEO and sales-floor hustler: to survive, he’s told, his farm must move forward with endless, unchecked expansion, which is why he spends so much time selling genetically modified seeds all around the great state of Iowa.
Whipple inherited this farm from his gruff father (Red West), and wants to groom a successor. But his golden son Grant has turned from high school football star to hippie-ish wanderer. When the family waits for Grant’s scheduled return home — literally rolling out a red carpet in front of their homestead (in the first of many actions both the movie and its characters seem to find completely normal) — they receive a postcard from him, informing them of his plans to climb some more mountains. These plans also make the front page of the local newspaper, which also seems to be completely normal to everyone in the film. Henry’s eyes then turn to his other son, Dean (Zac Efron), who has little interest in the family business, preferring instead to train for the race car circuit. Further complications arise when Henry is implicated in a seed-selling business scandal.
Through all of this familial and social drama, doubtless intended to provoke careful consideration, my own thoughts kept returning to an uncomfortable place: Quaid, and, more specifically, the way his performance works with the screenplay to fully undermine Henry as a human character. Quaid, as he’s been doing in many of his recent roles, pulls faces like crazy: wiggling his mouth and waggling his arms, like he’s got an excess of nervous acting energy that he can’t ever work off. He sells Whipple as insistently and gracelessly as Whipple hawks grain. As if to balance out his onscreen father, Efron retreats to vacant stares. It’s a deeply tedious double act; the characters and performances deserve each other.
The most interesting relationship is barely developed: early in the movie, Henry takes Dean’s layabout girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) out on a day’s worth of sales calls, and she proves a surprisingly resourceful worker. Her success in the field, a mostly-dropped subplot, makes more sense than anyone else’s: Early in the movie, Dean reluctantly accompanies Henry on a tasteless sales call to a funeral, with the goal of taking the deceased’s 200 acres off the family’s hand at a bargain price, much to that family’s disgust. Somehow, Henry’s smarminess and Henry’s stoic embarrassment result in a quick transaction anyway; in the world of this movie, desperately farm-averse family members would rather sell to someone they’ve just angrily condemned than wait even a day to figure out their options.
Also, at one point Heather Graham, playing Henry’s mistress, has sex in a grain silo — because in its slow, trudging way, the movie is not only implausible but kind of nuts, too. At first, the movie conceals its strangeness within its garden-variety incompetence, with phrases like “that’s always been your problem,” prefacing info-dump expositional dialogue. But the screenplay tumbles from awkward dialogue to the weird matching father-son rivals for the Whipple men to a dark turn in the movie’s interminable final 30 minutes. At Any Price has the scope and ambition of a novel — a terrible, terrible novel.
The movie’s visual style doesn’t match its understated madness. Bahrani shoots a lot of clear landscape images with little texture or mood; Iowa looks nice, but indistinct. I think — I fear — he thought he was making a film of social realism, perhaps about the corruption of the American dream. Instead, he made one about amateur race cars, sex in grain silos, murderous secrets, and Dennis Quaid’s late-period acting crisis — only not as much fun as any of that sounds.