Film review: At Any Price

At Any Price
2012
Black Bear Pictures, Treehouse Pictures, Killer Films, Noruz Films, Big Indie Pictures

STARRING Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Maika Monroe
WRITTEN BY Ramin Bahrani, Hallie Elizabeth Newton
PRODUCED BY Teddy Schwarzman, Justin Nappi, Kevin Turen, Christine Vachon, Ramin Bahrani, Pamela Koffler
DIRECTED BY Ramin Bahrani

SHOT BY Michael Simmonds
EDITED BY Affonso Gonçalves
MUSIC BY Dickon Hinchliffe
DISTRIBUTED BY Sony Pictures Classics

Screened 2013-04-02

Dennis Quaid plays the ambitious and emotionally crushed Henry Whipple, an Iowa patriarch struggling to keep his family farm prosperous in the cutthroat environment of Big Agro. This is made considerably more difficult by his firebrand son Dean, played by the smoldering Zac Efron, a young man resentful of his status as Crop Heir and whose desire to speed out of the middle of nowhere has led to an obsession with racing in NASCAR. Dean represents Henry’s last hope of passing on his business legacy as first son Grant shews no indication of settling down from his globetrotting adventures, witnessed by the Whipple family through Grant’s sporadically dropped postcards of exotic locales scarcely imaginable from a cornfield. Dean shows no interest, anti-interest, in Henry’s troubles; Dean’s only concerns are the upkeep of his racecar (legally or not) and finding the prettiest bucolic blonde he can bang therein – (the raging hormones of many 17 year old boys do essentially equate them to being on drugs). First it’s Cadence (Maika Monroe), the easygoing teenage stray who Henry takes under his wing, and who shows more brains and morals than most other characters in the film. Then it’s Meredith (Heather Graham), homewrecker extraordinaire who, regrettably, also happens to be banging Whipple the Elder. One of the film’s two unifying events occurs midway, as Dean is given the opportunity to graduate from ARCA’s amateur dirt plots to the terrifying terminal velocity of NASCAR asphalt. When the frenetic pace overwhelms him there are a number of quick shots where we see Dean desperately looking over to find the human face in the other car, unprepared for competition this exponentially advanced.

When Henry Whipple isn’t failing to connect with his wife or child he’s out peddling genetically-modified seed for the leviathan corporate machine known as Liberty (undeniably a proxy Monsanto), being berated by his monstrous father (Red West), or sitting perched in his air-conditioned mega tractor, pinging his smartphone like a social media addict for updates on the global market. Due to the mercenary tactics Henry feels he must apply to stay ahead, his neighbor and longtime friend (veteran Chelcie Ross) is forced to implicate Henry in an investigation by Liberty into the illegal cleaning and reuse of their patented seed, and this investigation could imaginably topple the precarious Whipple fiefdom. Henry, Dean and wife Irene (Kim Dickens) are cornered, and their subsequent actions affect and diminish the entire community. It is a prescient allegory and a warning to us all: there was a reason that salesman died. Quaid gives a strong performance of a man who has been on a moral lunch break for too long, whose energy comes from desperation and who is ultimately confounded. When his father levies this heartless chastisement, “First Decatur, now Grant. You lost ’em, Henry! You never shoulda let ’em go!”, the baffled, wounded look on Henry’s face is crushing.

At Any Price is director Ramin Bahrani’s dramatized extrapolation of the consequences of Henry’s moral compromises, Henry being a pitiable victim of corporate greed. Director Bahrani would spend months with farmers in the American midwest and said that, without exception, they all recited these two circulating maxims to him: “Expand or die,” and “Get big or get out.” These statements were branded into the minds of those involved with the film, and fuel its surprisingly grim undercurrent. This is not some wistful film that views farmers as noble in their pursuits, getting their hands dirty, the “true” American “folks” – it is a look at the human cost of bottom-line mentality and the way an inherently competitive system can force once loving neighbors to fear, mistrust and despise each other (I suppose the title is something of a giveaway). One of my first impressions of Henry was that he harps on about loyalty to the point of alienating his audience – but by the film’s end, it is perfectly clear why this is his mantra.

Thankfully, the combination of Hallie Elizabeth Newton’s script and Bahrani’s direction do not demonize any character, even the ones who seem to be directly threatening to the Whipple family. Clancy Brown plays Jim Johnson, Whipple’s chief rival in a constant feud for the control of counties, yet when Henry instinctively celebrates Johnson’s bad fortune, we understand that these men should never have been in conflict, and that Johnson is a human, a father and a breadwinner just like Whipple, who happens to be unluckier. In fact, by the end it is actually the Whipple family who can be arguably described as the vicious ones in town. They were not born this way – ruin descended on them. All film events lead to the Whipple Customer Appreciation Day, a bittersweet accomplishment to we who have seen the cost of maintaining their family business. Redemption for the Whipples is not beyond possibility, but it would require a paradigm shift, an entirely new story. If the progress of phenomenal corporate megagreed is any indication, that story is aways in coming.

written by David Ashley

Links:
Film’s site
Trailer
My interview participation with Ramin Bahrani and Dennis Quaid

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