The first three feature films by Ramin Bahrani – 2005’s “Man Push Cart,” 2007’s “Chop Shop” and 2008’s “Goodbye Solo” — were extremely well-regarded by festival and art-house crowds (Roger Ebert called Bahrani “the director of the decade”), but barely made a dent on the wider cultural consciousness, receiving fairly limited releases and so far, making Bahrani a favourite of cinephiles, but far from a crossover success. But four years since his last film, Bahrani is back at Venice, the festival which made his name with “Man Push Cart,” for a film that threatens to push him towards the mainstream, with a starry cast and a distribution deal already in place from Sony Pictures Classics. And while perhaps not quite up there with the low-key, humanistic triumphs of his earlier films, “At Any Price” does seem likely to win him further and wider recognition.
In the heartlands of Iowa, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) runs a moderately successful corn farm – big enough that he’s just been able to buy 200 extra acres, but still far behind his major competitor Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). His hope was that his eldest son Grant would be able to take over the farm, but Grant’s gone travelling, with no sign of returning, so he’s forced to consider black sheep Dean (Zac Efron) who has his own dreams of making it to NASCAR. Their plans come to a head when Dean finally gets a tryout for ARCA (the next step down from NASCAR), just as his father comes under investigation for illegally cleaning and reselling the genetically modified seeds he uses to plant his crops. Their conflicting dreams are set to shatter not only their own lives, but also those of Henry’s wife (Kim Dickens) and Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (newcomer Maika Monroe).
It’s a film on a fairly intimate scale, but dealing with big, modern themes – the cost of the American dream (as the title might suggest), the destructiveness of competition, the sacrifices parents make for their children and vice versa, and what people will do in order to survive. And being told in the form of an good old-fashioned melodrama, closer to “Giant” or “Death Of A Salesman” then anything else, it risks being unfashionable, and indeed the film was the first we’ve seen in Venice to receive a few scattered boos as the credits rolled.
We’d certainly suggest that those boos are unfair, even if we don’t unreservedly love the film. The film is very, very different, in some ways, to Bahrani’s earlier work, with sweeping widescreen compositions of the Midwestern landcape, and a shift from using essentially non-professional actors to parts that are designed to showcase bigger names. And the allegory within the picture isn’t especially subtle – Bahrani showing the sacrifices made in the name of capitalism (the title is there for a reason…) may rankle some.
But, there are issues in particular with the script. Here, subtext is not something Bahrani is interested in, so his characters mostly coming out and say what they’re feeling in fairly plain terms, and it’s often quite jarring to watch. You’re aware of the screenwriters’ hands, rather than feeling that these are real people saying whatever occurred to them at that moment. These scenes (and it’s not all of them), and some of the plotting are at best inelegant, and at worst borderline soapy.
The performances are also inconsistent. Efron starts strongly, very reminiscent of twenty-something Tom Cruise somehow (maybe it was just the race driver uniform), but the strain sometimes shows as his character moves into self-destructive inarticulacy. It’s probably his best performance to date, but James Dean he ain’t, at least at this stage. The ever-underrated Kim Dickens (“Deadwood,” “Treme”) is nuanced as Irene, Henry’s wife, but the part is severely underwritten. Most out-of-place of all is Heather Graham, as Meredith, a local woman who has dalliances with both father and son. The existence of the role doesn’t do much but add an extraneous Oedipal layer of sizzle to the plot, but that could be forgiven with a better performance: instead, Graham is deeply wooden and uncharismatic.
Fortunately, newcomer Maika Monroe, is a real find as Cadence, and best of all is Dennis Quaid. We always like seeing him on screen, but he’s never had a part like this one, a folksy King Lear (indeed, it’s hard not to spot a little of Quaid’s Bill Clinton from “The Special Relationship” and his Dubya surrogate from “American Dreamz” in the part) whose shallow smile just about masks his fears and his disappointments. The actor is truly the center of the film, and he’s honestly terrific from the first frame to the last.
Which is not to say that he’s the only good thing about it. We can see why some might not roll with the melodramatic plotting and the less-than-opaque metaphors. But for all its flaws, we found the film powerful, engaging and, by the finale, moving. And in the end, “At Any Price” is certainly one of the most impressive reactions to the recent economic crisis (because that’s exactly what it is) that cinema has produced so far. [B]