Is the most politically thought-provoking film of the season a drama starring Zac Efron as an aspiring racecar driver? Seems so. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, the director of such small class-conscious wonders as “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” “At Any Price” stars Efron as a young farmer’s son from the Heartland with big dreams of escaping his small-town life. On the surface, it could be another watered-down piece of Americana (think “Secretariat” meets “Charlie St. Cloud”), but Bahrani is too smart for that, and the film becomes a searing and forceful reflection of failure and personal reckoning amid the overwhelming pressures of the multinational marketplace.
I hope unsuspecting audiences seek it out and stick with it, because it’s full of surprises, most of which is a final act switch that takes the movie into far darker terrain, and a conclusive coda that is as beautifully understated as it is brilliantly and bitingly cynical.
In an interview in the Village Voice, Barhani spells out many of the film’s political targets, though none of it comes across as overt in the film. “The idea was to show how Wall Street has come to the family farm,” Bahrani said. “Instead of skyscrapers, you have corn.”
While researching the story in the Midwest, Bahrani told the Voice that he heard farmers say “expand or die” almost as a mantra. “I heard it everywhere I went,” he said. “But it’s like everything. Look at Walmart. The Walton family owns more than 40 percent of the country, total. And farms are like Walmart: The big farms squeeze out the small farms, towns disappear, schools close, people vanish.”
And we can expect more subtle, subversive and incisive examinations of America’s contemporary social and economic landscape. According to the Voice, his next project is about the housing crisis in Orlando, which he said would be about the “99 percent sticking a dagger in the heart of the 1 percent.”