I hope this new effort is merely a misstep in what's so far been a wonderful body of work. While all his films take on the American dream, none does so more emphatically than At Any Price. That's one of the problems: There's nothing subtle about the new film. It marks the director's first foray into the Midwest, but his view of the people who work, live and love there feels stilted and unnatural, miles away from the sort of storytelling to which we've grown accustomed.
These days, there are few things that are more red-state than farming and car racing, and At Any Price has both. Additionally, it's tough to come up with two more white-bread actors than Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, and, yes, At Any Price features both of them. Quaid plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer and seed salesman who seems to have it all. He has a lovely wife in Irene (Kim Dickens) and two sons. Grant (Patrick Stevens) went to college on a football scholarship, and, as far as Henry's concerned, the younger Dean (Efron) is perfectly happy at home on the farm, which he'll eventually take over.
But all's not well in these fields of dreams. Henry's a shark, living by the "expand or die" credo that's taken over the industry, willing to do almost anything to fill his treasure chest. Grant's so unhappy that he doesn't come home from college, and Dean can't stand his father, because he's overbearing in a Ned Flanders sort of way and oblivious to Dean's true passion—racing cars. This isn't just a kid rebelling against his straight-laced dad, either. Henry has all kinds of problems: He's losing ground to another salesman, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown); he's been involved in some shady agriculture business; and he's getting something on the side with Meredith, a former cheerleader who's become a local cougar (Heather Graham). He's not a good guy.
Oh, and Quaid is terrible, and his character is the lynchpin of the entire film. This is an actor who's been in several movies I hold dear, but it's hard to buy into his character here, sort of a farming version of the guy William H. Macy played so well in Fargo. But where Macy embodied poor, dumb Jerry Lundegaard, here you feel as though Quaid is acting the whole time. More importantly, and this fault lies with both Quaid and Bahrani, I couldn't feel for him at all, or even begin to understand the moral and ethical quagmire into which he's sinking.
Now, that might have been an interesting movie. But At Any Price devolves into anger, sex and violence, without truly exploring the issues facing the heartland. Oh, sure, it hints at meth labs and fundamentalism, but it never actually gets dirty enough to tackle those issues. There's no doubt that family farming is in crisis in this country, but Bahrani's new movie barely scratches the surface of what could have been a very interesting harvest.