Mark Reviews Movies

At Any Price


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ramin Bahrani

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Maika Monroe, Heather Graham, Red West, Clancy Brown, Chelcie Ross, Ben Marten

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 4/24/13 (limited); 5/3/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 2, 2013

The outsider always has the advantage for seeing the tight-knit groups in which we are involved for what they really are, while we—so entangled in the ways of those cloistered lifestyles—find it difficult to take a few steps back and see the flaws within our various cliques and, hence, ourselves. It's an outsider in At Any Price who calls out the strange attitude the patriarch of a modern-day farming family and chief executive of an agriculture company has about business. After relating how cutthroat one must be to keep up with and try to get ahead of the competition, this outsider immediately and intrinsically thinks that the world of agribusiness sounds like the Mafia.

At the time, the line plays as a throwaway joke. Surely, that notion—even if it sounds accurate in a broad, naïve way—is absurd. Yes, there's something cold-hearted about the way these farmers fight over territory, trying to sell genetically modified seeds from a big company to smaller farms to ensure that they're number one in the most counties. Yes, one of the central characters is breaking the law, saving those seeds for later use, and trying to cover up his tracks while attempting to find the person who betrayed his trust, and his rationale for the crime is that the practice of reusing seeds is an old tradition. Yes, these farmers are working primarily to secure the reputation and viability of their respective families, but what person isn't in his or her work?

This is not some major criminal enterprise, but there is some truth to the outsider's claim. If it seems like a joke at first, by the end of co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani's film, the statement feels like prophecy.

The story follows the Whipple family, who own and run a farm in Iowa. The head of the family and business is Henry (Dennis Quaid, great in portraying a man whose sleaziness primarily comes from his phony amiability), who took the reins from his own father (Red West), a man who sees modern farming as something of luxury—given the reliance on GPS-driven and air-conditioned machinery—and not the back-breaking work that makes a man a man it used to be.

That Henry wants to impress his father probably makes the rebellion of his own sons the harder to process. He wants nothing more than for his boys to be like him, but they are not. His elder son Grant (Patrick Stevens) goes off to college one day, and years later, Henry and his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) eagerly wait for his return. Henry has bought his son a plot of land from the mourning family of the previous, now-deceased owner (at the funeral, no less), and they literally roll out the red carpet for him. Grant, though, has other plans to backpack through South America. The carpet stays laid out on the driveway as a sore reminder for the heartbroken Henry of what could have been.

His other son, Henry supposes, is a lost cause. He's Dean (Zac Efron), a teenager with no desire to have any part in his father's business. No one can blame him—except his father, of course. Henry can barely see Dean from behind the long shadow Grant casts over the kid in the father's mind. Both sons resent the idea of having their lives planned out for them; Grant, apparently, was just silent on the matter, waiting for a perfect and dramatic opportunity to make his revolt clear.

Dean drives a race car. Henry doesn't understand his son's passion; Irene gives him a check from her personal bank account to get him into a qualifying race that could start him on a career. We have to question her motives for this action, though, given that she's learned her husband is having an affair with Meredith (Heather Graham). Is Irene's under-the-table payment meant to support her son, to spite her husband, or maybe a little of both?

Henry starts to admire his son's racing, especially since Dean is better than the son of Henry's main competition Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), but it's too little and far too late for Dean to believe his father's newfound attention is genuine. Only Dean's girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe, strong as the film's moral center) really supports him without reservation; she's the observant outsider who can see through all the familial drama and suggest that there's something darker underneath Henry's business practices when she tags along to help him sell seeds.

The screenplay by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton boils down to a story of a father and son who both think they are different from each other but—in that great, honest irony of people who routinely clash—are really only in denial about how similar they are. Both are proud to the point of stubbornness. They find it difficult to handle pressure and become helpless under the weight (Dean cracks during a big race, fearing that he might not be ready for risk involved; Henry flails as investigators answer to a report that he's recycling seeds and robbing the company of their intellectual property, confronting the man he thinks ratted him out and trying to eliminate evidence that he did).

The third act brings about a deed that changes everything about these characters and the entire tone of the film; it works because Bahrani and Newton stay true to the characters' reactions to even something that might, upon initial impact, seem contrived. These are flawed but principled men who could never in their worst nightmares dream to what actions their flaws would lead them and what sins their principles would force them to excuse. They become a better team (and, by external appearances at least, better men) by the end of At Any Price, but the cost is greater than it is worth.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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