The genius of Ramin Bahrani’s AT ANY PRICE is the way it talks about things without actually talking about them. This is a story of cause-and-effect, with the failings of a father reflecting the corruption of the American Dream. Though it takes place in the heartland, on that most homespun and wholesome of enterprises, the family farm, this is a story that is as potent as a Greek tragedy, as mythic and as shattering.
The family farm is that of the Whipples. Four generations strong and, thanks to a sideline in selling patented GMO seeds, a thriving concern prosperous to any outside observer. Henry (Dennis Quaid) is the loving husband of Irene (Kim Dickens) a capable and still comely woman. He is the proud father of two sons who adore him, he has a quick with a smile and a firm handshake as he hustles through rural Iowa living the credo of his agribusiness seed supplier, expand or die. Inside the family, though, tensions are set to boil over. Older son Grant (Patrick Stevens), has failed to return from college to the heros welcome Henry has planned, complete with red carpet rolled out on the driveway. Younger son Dean (Zac Efron), who remained home and works at his father side, finds his fathers obvious preference for Grant more and more intolerable, and plans his own exit via a career in car racing, despite, or perhaps because of, his fathers disdain for the pursuit. Living in a fantasy that Grant will return to run the farm with him, Henry makes an illegal move that will reverberate through every member of his family, and eventually his entire community.
The niceties of the law in contrast to the far more subtle distinctions of justice pervade the film. With the advent of patents on life itself, what had been a decent living for some has now becomes a crime. Betrayals of a personal nature take on greater significance than legal infractions large and small as every character in the film faces a cataclysm that splits open the illusions that he or she has been living and forces them to confront reality. The most significant moment comes when Irene, fed up with one too many lies, asks Henry why he cant be happy with whats right in front of him. By extension, its the question that exposes how society has been subverted by a media culture that dazzles with possibilities, and teases the unwary. Expand or die becomes more never being enough, a proposition that finds its microcosm in Henrys relationship with his own father, for whom he always comes up short, and for whom no effort is quite good enough.
By showing the results of a culture gone wrong, Bahrani is able to create characters who are flawed, but not evil. Bahrani gives each of them the dignity of a wounded soul that pushes them and, as often or not, trips them up. The audience may never condone what happens, but its impossible to feel anything less than pure empathy for everyone. These are people for whom the need for connection, for approval, for validation is savage. It is also the role of Dennis Quaids career. As Henry, he radiates a hope and a self-confidence in which he cant bring himself to believe. Behind the quick smile and jaunty repartee, there is a visceral desperation and a profound sadness that never quite leaves his eyes. When he takes the blame for anothers crime, hes not lying, hes acknowledging himself as the root cause of everything that has gone wrong to that moment, and everything in Quaids performance to that point leads imperceptibly but inevitably to that moment.
Bahrani has crafted a gripping family drama that resonates with the suspense of a thriller with characters who find their redemption in embracing their weaknesses and their mistakes. AT ANY PRICE is a complex, intelligent film, poetic in its tragedy, and beautiful in its compassion.