Writer/director Ramin Bahrani specializes in small-scale, hyper-regional studies of livelihoods that remain all but alien to the world of fiction films. In Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), Bahrani portrayed, respectively, the struggles of a Pakistani immigrant running a food cart in Manhattan and a Latino orphan working at an auto-body shop in Queens. His latest, At Any Price, puts human faces to the phrase “corporate agribusiness” with a family drama set amid the present-day Iowa cornfields.
Dennis Quaid plays third-generation farmer Henry Whipple, whose large parcel of land and independent seed sales operation puts him somewhere near the middle of the economic ladder: above the sharecroppers but well below the corporate mega-farms, whose access to university research programs, genetic engineering, and patented, high-tech systems are pushing out traditional corn-growers. In a refreshing divergence from the stereotype of the saintly or “maverick” underdog, Henry is an unctuous creep – more Jerry Lundegaard than Walter White – the kind of down-and-out loser old associates cross the street to avoid. We understand that hard reality, not moral failure, made him this way, and there’s something perversely heroic in his readiness to lie, cheat, steal, and even show up at funerals to ambush the bereaved with sales pitches, all in dogged allegiance to the Whipple family name. Next in line to take over would be young, volatile Dean Whipple (Efron), who defies his dad’s wishes by pursing a career as a NASCAR driver.
Efron, now making the transition from teen idol to serious actor, is believable as a broody, insolent car nut, but not as a kid raised on a farm; he seems too clean, too porcelain-smooth, as if stuck into the landscape by CGI. This casting choice is just one of a score of false notes in the film, which fails to approach the emotional substance of Linklater’s Fast Food Nation. Bahrani’s dizzy, zooming camera seems out of place for a film about farm life, and too many storylines are buried before they get their due. Though well-researched and competently acted, At Any Price doesn’t risk much, having neither a thesis nor a resolution. Like an awkward hug between estranged relations, there’s a lack of confidence in the execution.