I’ve been following the evolution of Ramin Bahrani’s career since his first film, Man Push Cart, debuted at Sundance in 2005, so it was with great interest that I settled in to check out his latest work, At Any Price, a drama built around the inter-generational conflict of a farm family in Iowa. Dean (Zac Efron) dreams of being a Nascar driver and desperately wants to do something with his life other than follow in his father’s footsteps and grow corn. Dean’s dad, Henry (Dennis Quaid), whose grandfather bought and built up the family farm from nothing, carries on his shoulders the heavy weight of trying to please his endlessly disappointed father (Red West, previously seen in Bahrani’s last film, Goodbye Solo) by sustaining a family farm business in an age when farming has become less about good hard work and crops and earth, and more about the big business of corporations and deals with seed companies to sell GMO corn seed to other farmers.
Henry’s adopted a mantra of “bigger is better,” and that philosophy drives him to purchase as much land as he can afford to buy, even if the cost of doing so means showing up at the funerals of dead farmers to persuade their big-city kin to unload their property by selling it to him before someone else can buy it, and screwing over the other farmers who’ve been renting that land for years. But Henry’s burning desire to grow bigger comes with moral costs he should have foreseen but didn’t, that threaten to undo everything he’s worked so tirelessly to build.
Henry’s competing against a fellow farmer, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) for the sale of this all-important seed, and he’s losing the race, holding the number one position in just seven counties to his competitor’s 24. Meanwhile Johnson’s son Brad (Ben Martin) competes with Dean in figure-eight dirt track racing, an all-important step on the path to Nascar glory, and thus the conflict between the fathers filters down to their sons. Henry tolerates Dean’s racing as a hobby, but his heart is set on his sons inheriting the family business, and Dean’s older brother is off climbing mountain peaks in Argentina, as far away from farms and corn as he can get.
Sound complicated? It is. If your mental picture of what farming entails involves visions of hay-chewing, overall clad bumpkins growing vegetables on a small plot of land, At Any Price will quickly dissuade you of that notion. Farming is big business with a lot of money at stake, and corporations now control a big chunk of it. And farming is also an unpredictable business, at the mercy of things you can’t control, like growing conditions and big storms, and even things you might think are easy to control that really aren’t, like growing crops with GMO seed versus natural seed, and other farmers stealing your customers right out from under your nose.
Much as this keeps being pitched as the Zac Efron car racing film, it isn’t that film at all. This is a story about the relationships between fathers and sons, the deep-rooted desire to please a parent, even if it means sacrificing our own dreams, and the moral choices we make when we set our sights on a prize. Henry’s dream was football glory, Dean’s is cars, but at the heart of it they are both torn, Dean desperately wanting his dad to notice and respect him for what he is, and Henry equally desperate in his need for his ever-critical dad to just pat him on the back and say, “You’re good, son. You’re good.”
Quaid is terrific as Henry, a man who’s so conflicted over the pressure to please his father and his guilt at the shortcuts and deceptions in his life that he physically looks like a man tied in knots. He’s so focused on appearances – what people think of his sons, one off climbing mountains, the other racing cars; what people think of him, whether he’s perceived as “winning” the game. Quaid’s tight-lipped, twisted expression and body language say more than any line of dialog could. Efron, meanwhile, continues to impress as an actor of real note, leaving his Disney High School Musical roots far behind with a compelling and textured performance as a young man who desperately wants not to be the man his father is, while making many of the same questionable moral choices.
Counterweight to these conflicted men are Kim Dickens as Irene, Henry’s patient, long-suffering wife, Heather Graham as Meredith, the beauty who’s settled for the role of small-town sexpot, reluctant to leave her roots behind, and newcomer Maika Monroe as Cadence, Dean’s sometime girlfriend, who takes an interest in the business side of farming, becoming a sort of surrogate to Henry, replacing the sons he’d dreamed would share his love of the family land.
Bahrani’s films are studies in character and heavy on symbolism: the former Pakistani rock star who’s selling coffee from a Manhattan push cart, moving his cart around the city in an endless sisyphean cycle in Man Push Cart; the Latino street orphan laboring in the rough-and-tumble grind of a questionable auto-repair/chop shop in the Iron Triangle area of New York City, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium in Chop Shop; the old man who’s decided to commit suicide, who tries to persuade a friendly cab driver to drive him to the mountain from which he intends to leap to his death in Goodbye Solo.
Here, Bahrani’s clearly worked to open his storytelling up to paint on a broader canvas, but he’s still using the meticulous brushstrokes that have always defined his films. At the same time, he also seems interested at this point in his career in not making the same film over and over again with different characters; while At Any Price bears many hallmarks of a Bahrani film, there’s a more complex interweaving of characters, a deeper exploration of interpersonal relationships that we started to see in his work with Goodbye Solo, but that’s much more evident here. And it’s great to see a director of Bahrani’s level of innate talent not getting complacent at this point in his career.
Bahrani continues to work with his long-time cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, and that relationship has been a fruitful and integral part of the way Bahrani’s films look and feel. Through Simmonds’ lens, Iowa farmland is all vivid, saturated, greens and yellows, the skies overhead are a bright azure, the sun beating down on the fields looks hot, underscoring a subtle side plot about warming temperature trends in the Iowa corn fields. All this color and beauty serves to counter the weighty moral issues that scaffold the story; At Any Price isn’t so much about race cars or corn as it is about what price we’re willing to pay to protect what we love, and to keep our hopes and dreams alive. As such it’s a fitting parable for our times.