Movies about farming interest me about as much as the devaluation of the Chinese yuan. So it is with querulous satisfaction that I find At Any Price, an uneven but timeless story of the decline of the American family farm during perilous times of increasing corporate control, so personal, human and compelling. Dennis Quaid, who grows more dynamic, intimate and three-dimensional in every new role he plays, is absolutely engrossing as the personification of the calloused pioneer hero of the American heartland who faces competition, compromise and threat of extinction. He is passionate yet nuanced, and so, for the most part, is the film itself.
He is Henry Whipple, an Iowa corn farmer and seed developer who has inherited the mantle of a family farming empire ruled by the watchcry “Expand or die!” To that end, he is ruthlessly ambitious. He frequents dead farmers’ funerals, his insincere smile masking an easygoing roughness, offering to buy up his grieving neighbors’ acreage at bargain prices, thereby taking advantage of a younger generation that seeks an easier way of life. This cheating of his fellow farmers’ children and his stooping to unethical business practices in the pursuit of seed sales lead to a government investigation into whether he has been illegally cleaning and reselling genetically modified seeds for crops.
One older son has already left home and shows no signs of coming back. Now it is Henry’s hope that his younger son Dean (Zac Efron) will join him as a partner in turning the land into a commercial legacy and will run the farm after he dies. But Dean has no interest, eschewing farming for a dream of a lucrative career as a professional race-car driver, his sights set on NASCAR. Under the influence of writer-director Ramin Bahrani, Mr. Efron moves another step in the direction of mature psychological complexity and several miles further away from his frivolous fan base of teenyboppers who hark back to his High School Musical days.
Textured performances of generational complexity add emotional depth to every carefully calibrated phase of the plot, even when the film wafts unsteadily in the direction of melodrama. To leaven patience-testing scenes of the wheeler-dealer father facing a tax audit and the black sheep son who wants to escape, we get exciting racetrack sequences, an education on and insight into the problems of farmers desperate to survive in a changing agricultural world, and viewer-friendly, borderline soap opera elements (beautifully understated) involving Henry’s neglected wife and clan matriarch (Kim Dickens) and the louche former cheerleader-turned-“silo slut” (Heather Graham) who sleeps with both father and son.
You feel the anguish of men who depend on nature for their existence and what they go through when the rain and the sun don’t come. The problem is, you also get too much information about nutrient explosions in the soil, grain markets, corn prices and the latest tractor. It’s a contemporary progress report on the economy, in which silos and grain elevators substitute for skyscrapers and stock exchanges. In this slowly diminishing agrarian landscape reminiscent of John Ford at his most accidentally poetic, Dennis Quaid is both obdurate and touching, a Lear in blue jeans full of cracker-barrel homilies (“Loyalty plus listening equals solution”) delivered while passing out Butterfingers to field hands. In the old days, you could just plant natural seeds and grow something. Now everyone uses genetically modified seeds, but it’s illegal to clean and replant them. Not to mention reselling them, which is what Henry does, and then is turned into the Feds by a farmer he rooked out of 200 acres. I didn’t know about all of this. Nor did I care. But Mr. Quaid makes you care, even if his efforts to succeed “at any price” lead to murder. Who knew there was so much mendacity and mayhem in the Grain Belt?
Flawed but different, well-crafted and consistently powerful, At Any Price is the best film about impoverished farmers in the economic agricultural crisis since Jean Renoir’s The Southerner.
AT ANY PRICE
Written by Ramin Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Starring Dennis Quaid, Kim Dickens and Zac Efron
Running time: 105 mins.