At Any Price: Venice Review

VENICE – The characters played by Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron in At Any Price could almost be contemporary American agricultural family counterparts to Arthur Miller’s Willy and Biff Loman. Their conflicts don’t resonate on the same scale as Death of a Salesman, but Ramin Bahrani’s accomplished, well-acted film is an engrossingly serious-minded heartland drama, rich in moral ambiguity, that examines the challenging relationship of fathers and sons in the difficult terrain of modern commercial farming.

New York-based filmmaker Bahrani has developed a reputation as a sensitive storyteller with his features Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. In his new film, co-written with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, he again shows a keen, compassionate understanding of complex character psychology, coaxing textured performances from a sturdy cast.

Particularly impressive is Quaid, who goes beyond his usual easygoing masculinity to convey the craggy gravitas of a man fixated on building his legacy and heedless of the compromises that entails. It’s to the actor’s credit that Quaid refuses to soften a blowhard character whose surface affability masks an encroaching unscrupulousness. Efron does equally strong work. Continuing to distance himself from his origins as a pretty-boy teen idol, he brings an intense, brooding stillness to the screen here, simmering with the frustrations of small-town entrapment.

The town in question is a rural community in the Southern Iowa cornfields, where traditional seed farming has been replaced by the more industrialized business of genetic modification, bringing with it increased professional competition and rendering certain agricultural practices obsolete. A quiet yearning for the simplicity of earlier times provides a melancholy undercurrent to the story of the Whipple family.

Years after assuming control of the family farm from his judgmental father (Red West), Henry Whipple (Quaid) lives by the credo “Expand or die,” swooping in on funerals to snap up additional land at bargain prices from offspring who want little to do with their parents’ hardscrabble way of life. He also pushes ethical boundaries in order to compete with aggressive rival Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) for area leadership in seed sales. And he blithely cheats on his tender, loyal wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with Meredith (Heather Graham), the embodiment of every former cheerleader whose plan to escape her stifling hometown didn’t pan out.
Henry’s sullen son Dean (Efron) has zero interest in farming. A talented stock car racer, he dreams of making it to NASCAR, but an early professional setback brings a cold reality check. It also prompts Henry to reassess his blind faith in the certainty that Dean’s absentee golden-boy brother will return to take up the family business.

The racetrack scenes recall the grit and excitement of Jonathan Kaplan’s underappreciated 1983 gem Heart Like a Wheel. But the chief dramatic engine is less Dean’s thwarted ambitions than the troubles that arise when Henry’s seed-sales operation is placed under investigation. This causes Dean to intervene with grave consequences, forcing the family to wrestle with challenging moral issues.

While the drama comes up a little short in emotional payoff, this is a thoughtful, nuanced film that vividly evokes life in a Midwestern community in which business often trumps friendship. It offers a rueful snapshot of the changing face of a quintessential element of American life.

The weight of inter-generational expectations, honor and loyalty is considered in the relationships of Dean, Henry and his father, but also Jim and his son (Ben Marten). Incidental scenes show the bitter lot of farmers struggling to eke out a living among ruthless competitors. And the limited roles available to women in rural communities are examined with intelligence through subtle work from Dickens, Graham and lovely newcomer Maika Monroe as Dean’s girlfriend Cadence.

There’s a pleasing old-fashioned quality to the film, which seems to hark back to a time when studios still made modestly budgeted stories about real people. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds captures the locations in crisp light and colors that show the beauty of the environment but also the sameness that characters like Dean and Meredith chafe against. And Dickon Hinchliffe’s somber score maintains a gentle approach, shrewdly allowing the darker dimensions of the drama to emerge unforced.