In recent years, we’ve seen directors try to paint a true portrait of the Midwest in cinema. Although Writer/Director Ramon Bahrani tries his best to capture that essence in At Any Price, he ultimately fails with an unfocused narrative, and an overall directionless film.
It’s difficult to pick out the center of this story, as there doesn’t seem to be much of a through line. At Any Price tries to focus on a family in crises as they try to weave their way around the competitive world of modernized agriculture. The ambitious but widely manipulative Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is looking to bring his rebellious son Dean (Zac Efron) into this family’s generational farming business, but aspiring Nascar driver Dean isn’t interested in that world. Of course any drama of Lifetime proportions is shrouded in secrecy, and the Whipple’s family secret is pretty huge, as the business is under investigation for how they run their fields. Thrown into the mix is the golden boy brother who has abandoned the family business to indulge in the world outside of Iowa.
At the heart, this story tries to pull off their best version of father and son angst, and settles for a disjoined offering instead. While Quaid’s character is seen trying to hold on to the family business that he’s drowning in, most of Efron’s story deals with getting out of Iowa and competing in figure 8 racing. When the two stories try to come together, they don’t feel authentic to the story Bahrani is trying to drive home. It’s because of this the actors chemistry often feels forced, which leaves Bahrani to scramble with rushed character arcs that are never fully realized, as their motivations make little to no sense with their actions.
Rahim sets his characters up strong, and then mid way through doesn’t seem to want to own up to them. Quaid’s character is set up to be a completely unredeemable character with obliged family morale kicking him every once in a while. His character thinks nothing of cheating on his wife with the town bicycle (Heather Graham), and interrupts a man’s funeral to buy more land out from under his competitor. So when Quaid is placed in scenes that beg the audience to feel sympathetic it comes off false. While Efron has a career-best performance as Dean who’s your typical angst-ridden young man. Efron’s character is set up as a kid yearning to become a Nascar driver, and wants absolutely nothing to do with the family business.
It’s almost forgivable that actors like Heather Graham are used as plot devices that aren’t fully utilized, but what’s unfathomable are the directionless characters especially with the talents at stake. After a dud race Dean, who has been built up as a competitive and determined racer, just winds up purposely crashing his car into a tree in an attempt to escape life altogether. He decides to quit racing after surviving the crash and comes around to joining the family business with gusto. However, things get even more unrealistic when Dean finds out the family’s illegal practices have been tipped off. He assumes it’s by the family of his driving competitor, and winds up killing him with a hammer in a field, only to have Henry, take the blame for the death. All of this happens with absolutely no explanation, especially when Dean’s investment in the farm and the family feels way too premature and sudden.
It’s because of this there seems to be absolutely no consequences for the characters, and the high-stake situations they find themselves in ends up playing out as unrealistic melodramatic fodder. It rings incredibly false that a small tight-knit community, which is painted throughout the film as people who know their neighbors business, would not think that foul play was involved in the death of Brad Johnson. Even more concerning is that the farming investigation would not at least alert authorities to pry into the “missing case” of the younger Johnson. Even the conversations between Henry and his wife are unrealistic and fall flat. When she reveals she knows about the cheating, and later when she somehow has a hunch that Dean or Henry might have killed Brad, she has a second of emotion and then quickly collects herself to spout clichéd lines of family unity.
The silver lining to this mess is a truly promising glimpse into a solid future for Efron. The actor gives a performance that stretches past his first solid adult role in The Paperboy. If he keeps this up and knows his limitations his chops will rival those pretty boy looks. Quaid does have his shining moments as well, but far too little for an actor of his caliber. It’s unfortunate that At Any Price didn’t succeed, because it certainly had all of the ingredients in its grasp.
AT ANY PRICE MAKES ITS TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL DEBUT ON APRIL 19TH.