"Expand or die" is the mantra spouted by farmers in Ramin Bahrani's "At Any Price," a menacing slogan that reflects the explosion of the cornfield market into a $2 trillion industry. It also provides a reminder of the movie's production conditions when compared to everything Bahrani has done before. With Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron in lead roles, "At Any Price" is a vastly different type of project than the astute, naturalistic character dramas that the neorealism-inspired Bahrani delivered with his first two features.
Unfortunately, without the intimacy and diverse social conditions that characterize Bahrani's "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo," the director's fourth movie buries his distinguishing qualities in moral grandstanding and familiar inter-generational tensions. It's not a terrible digression, but notably lacks the same distinction.
Bahrani's script, co-written by newcomer Hallie Elizabeth Newton, takes place in a quaint region of cornfields in Southern Iowa, where settled farmer Henry Whipple (Quaid) pressures his racecar driver son Dean (Efron) to take over the family business. Over the course of the movie, Henry slams into challenges from a number of directions: His older son leaves town on a soul-searching mission, providing the first inkling for Dean that there's more to the world beyond dusty roads and cornfields; meanwhile, Dean prefers to focus on his career potential behind the wheel.
Then there's the lingering possibility that Henry has participated in a seed-washing scam that violates national farming regulations. From its earliest scenes, it's obvious that Henry's business drive trumps his other principles. Disgusted, Dean constantly tries to slip away from his father's questionable priorities, but can't quite figure out where else to go.
While Bahrani efficiently establishes that initial tension, "At Any Price" wastes a majority of its runtime with bland, uninteresting proceedings — not because the plot lacks sufficient developments, but rather due to the lack of intrigue in which they're presented. Romantic subplots involving both main characters — Henry cheats on his wife with a bored local (Heather Graham) and Dean falls for a local girl (Sophie Curtis) with whom he envisions life in the fast lane — drag the story on a road to nowhere.
Only once investigators begin tailing Henry and accuse him of farming misdeeds does "At Any Price" bring clarity to its theme of corrupt motives lurking beneath the exterior of the American dream. Longtime Bahrani cinematographer Michael Simmonds provides elegant cinematography that capitalizes on the greens and yellows of the cornfields, where a steady pile-up of secrets continually raise the stakes that the Dean family must face down.
By the time "At Any Price" brings its ideas to the fore, however, the movie has already wasted a good two acts drawing out the boredom and missed opportunities that define the community. A transparent attempt to funnel real-world issues plaguing the industry into a digestible narrative, it stumbles through thin characterizations and underwritten developments. (A sex scene with Efron that literally takes place in a pile of corn seeds is a borderline embarrassment.) Bahrani reaches a point of intrigue only once the movie's seams have shown.
Still, the point should be made that the concluding act of "At Any Price" truly commands the weight the story demands. At that point, morphing into a crime thriller, it finally achieves a gripping synthesis of symbolic commentary and suspense. With palpable threats calling into question the futures of both father and son, the movie winds into a small-town American story populated by ethically conflicted personalities worthy of John Sayles. Given real struggles to convey, Quaid delivers some of his finest acting in the movie's closing scenes, his furrowed brow pointing to a pair of focused eyes that say a lot more than the script's rampant issue-based dialogue. Efron keeps pace with a less demanding but equally tense turn that easily tops anything else in his comparatively shorter oeuvre.
There's enough worth scrutinizing about the finale of "At Any Price" to make the scenes preceding it stand out in unflattering light. Too late, "At Any Price" displays the presence of a skilled filmmaker capable of using ambiguous pauses and representational imagery to convey the issues of greed and other covert desires. Until then, it's a slovenly affair only distinguished by its name cast. Considering what Bahrani has done before, the project may work wonders for expanding his profile, but the benefits of "At Any Price" also come at a troubling cost.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "At Any Price" premiered to mixed reviews at the Venice Film Festival before making a stop at Telluride en route to Toronto. Accolades for Quaid in particular should help the movie sustain its profile ahead of distributor Sony Pictures Classics' plan to release the movie early next year, where its cast and plot could generate significant interest over the course of a slow rollout.