Rating: R (language, sexual content including a strong graphic image)
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: April 24, 2013
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is an aging man who is beginning to wonder what exactly his legacy will be before he retires. He grew up in a sleepy Iowa town as a third-generation farmer and salesman for Whipple Seeds, which sells genetically-modified seeds to area farmers. He wanted the same for his sons Grant (Patrick Stevens) and Dean (Zac Efron), but neither of the boys seems interested in following in their father's footsteps in "At Any Price."
Grant went off to college and decided he wanted to see more of the world, so he dropped out to go climb mountains in Argentina. Dean stayed a little closer to home, competing in local stock car races in the hopes of one day getting into the NASCAR circuit. Henry doesn't understand his boys and has a rather contentious relationship with Dean, who doesn't seem to like his dad very much. Henry puts on a brave face and tries to act like a devoted and secure family man, even as he cheats on wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with the younger Meredith (Heather Graham). His fake smile is also hiding the fact that he is in danger of losing ground in the seed selling business to a rival, which makes him just desperate enough to make a few shady deals that could land him in hot water with the law.
Meanwhile, Dean despises his dad for all the mistakes he has made over the years, but soon finds himself making some of the same mistakes. The one thing in life he never wanted to be was his father, but if he isn't careful, he may become just like him. Once this harsh realization hits, he has to find a way to change the trajectory of his life, just as Henry's life may also be changing. As Dean tries to make a better future for himself, Henry's future is very much in jeopardy due to his backroom dealings. Will the two reconcile and find a greater appreciation for each other, or will they both continue to squander once promising lives at any price?
"At Any Price" is a well-written, well-acted film that is beautiful to watch. The beauty isn't just in the story or performances, but in the way that the Iowa background is used to perfection. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds captures the landscape in a way that is visually stunning to see, whether viewers have actually been to Iowa or not. The camera seems to constantly be floating over the scenic land, even as it is focused in on the characters as they have their moments of quiet desperation. It's beautiful work from Simmonds, who has worked with director Ramin Bahrani on all of his previous four films.
Quaid turns in a very solid and affecting performance as the lead, who serves as both the protagonist and occasional antagonist. He is as much an earnest farmer trying to adjust to a rapidly-changing agricultural marketplace as he is a salesman who will occasionally engage in a few seedy (pun intended) deals in order to get a leg up on the hungry competition. Efron is equal to the task as his angst-ridden son who might have taken up almost any profession as long as he didn't have to work with his dad. The two play off each other really well, which could be because Efron is as handsome and charismatic as Quaid is. In a lot of ways, he is a younger Quaid with equally good acting skills and the same kind of devilish grin that melts women's hearts.
Director Bahrani's films tend to focus on the American Experience as seen through the eyes of immigrants from various parts of the world. In "At Any Price," he takes a huge departure from his normal focus in order to show how the country's landscape has changed through the eyes of people who were born and raised here. There may be no better place to do this than the Midwest, where traditions and values are still very much the norm. As modern comforts like a forty-eight row seed planter clash with the old way of doing things in the film's small town setting, it becomes a metaphor for what is going on all over the country. Bahrani presents the characters and situations, but he is careful never to judge or make a pronouncement about which way is right, instead leaving that to the audience to decide. It's a nice, subtle touch that makes one wonder what Bahrani has up his sleeve for his next film now that he has started to break out of his comfort zone.