One supposes that a movie about an Iowa farm family needn’t—despite the usual crop—be corny. But Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” doesn’t avoid the trap. An old-fashioned, fifties-style melodrama, it offers a host of plots and sub-plots, twists and turns that frankly never congeal—except to make a rather murky mess in the fields.
At its core the picture is a tale of father-son conflict. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) presides over the family farm that he’s inherited from his stern, demanding father, Cliff (Red West). Henry has two sons, who he hopes will follow in his footsteps. But Grant (Patrick Stevens), the older of them, escapes as soon as he can—he barely appears at the start—and after graduating college goes off to climb mountains in South America rather than returning home. And the younger, Dean (Zac Efron), loathes the whole idea of taking over the place, as well as his father’s methods (Henry habitually tries to expand his holdings by approaching the bereaved at neighbors’ funerals and offering to buy them out). Instead Dean’s devoted to hitting the track in the county’s weekend stock car races, and nurtures the hope of getting on the professional circuit—and away from his father’s control.
Henry is not, in any event, a principled man. He’s having an affair with Meredith Crown (Heather Graham), a clerk in a local farm implement store who has a lusty sexual drive, betraying his long-suffering, supportive wife Irene (Kim Dickens) in the process. He’s always trying to best his smoother seed-selling competitor Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), who’s stealing his customers—much to Cliff’s displeasure. (The inter-familial rivalry extends to the next generation, too, since Dean’s chief rival on the track is Johnson’s hot-tempered son Brad, played by Ben Marten.) And Henry is not only undercutting long-time renters like Dan Waller (Larry Brown) by buying farms out from under them, but is breaking his contract with the company that provides the genetically-modified seed he sells by illegally having leftovers from one year’s crop “scrubbed” by a neighbor (Chelcie Ross) in order to sell them a second time and pocket the proceeds.
And that’s not all going on here. Dean’s involved with sweet local lass Cadence (Maika Monroe) but Meredith has her eye on the boy, taking quick advantage of his depression after he loses a race that might have been his ticket to fame. Meanwhile Henry finds Cadence a help in his seed-selling business, even though her relationship with his son is under increasing strain. Henry also comes under investigation by his seed supplier for his scrubbing activities, and fears losing the farm as a result—something that his father reacts to with fury. Without going too far in the spoiler department, one character goes into a self-destructive spiral, and another is killed. By the end cover-ups have become the order of the day, and all the members of the Whipple family have to come to terms with what they’ve done and failed to do.
This is a pretty packed, lurid scenario, and while as director Bahrani generally underplays rather than opting for a broad approach, it still comes across as heavy-handed. And it leaves one with nagging questions, most notably what seems to be a complete absence of police when a store is robbed—its plate-glass window blown apart with a gun—or a resident disappears, becoming the focus of volunteer searches by large crowds.
Under the circumstances the performances are for the most part fairly subtle, though Bahrani and editor Affonso Goncalves tend to linger overmuch on the sequences in which a distraught Quaid worries over the problems he’s facing and Efron fumes over his unhappy lot. On the technical side, Michael Simmonds’ cinematography takes advantage of the locations in widescreen images that give a nice sense of place, and the other behind-the-camera contributions are solid.
One can admire “At Any Price” for addressing the issue of ethical lapses in contemporary culture by focusing on Middle America rather than the usual suspects—New York, Washington, California. But the narrative Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton have concocted simply proves too unwieldy and melodramatic to remain credible and moving.