The Man in the Rearview Mirror, by David Bax
There’s a small percentage of people in this country who believe that small-town, rural communities somehow represent the “real” America. These people are generally white, backward-thinking and terrified of change. Still, with At Any Price, director Ramin Bahrani is perhaps addressing those very types by presenting characters who live in the vast agricultural mass in the middle of the country but are just as capable of deceit, violence and selfishness as anyone in the big, bad city. What lifts the film above the level of mere polemic is that Bahrani treats these people with compassion and respect, recognizing more than anything else their humanity.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a third-generation farmer in Iowa who is also a salesman who peddles genetically modified seeds to other farmers in the area. The older of his two sons was being groomed to take over the family business but has uncovered new layers of himself while away at college and gone off to Argentina. That leaves younger son Dean (Zac Efron), whose goal is to become a Nascar driver and to have nothing to do with his father. The tension between Henry and Dean, the tension between Henry and his wife, Irene (Kim Dickens) – on whom he is cheating with Heather Graham’s Meredith – and the building possibility that Henry will be prosecuted for the corners he’s cut in his seed dealing culminate over the course of one summer.
Despite what you may be picturing, this is not The Grapes of Wrath or Salt of the Earth. Most of the characters live quite comfortably. There isn’t a lot of toiling depicted or leathery faces caked with sweat-dampened dirt. In fact, most of the characters in this movie never break a sweat at all. As Henry’s father (Red West) points out, Henry owns a “48-row planter that drives itself with air conditioning and GPS.” Still, by putting him out in the natural world with miles in between each farm to which he totes his seed samples and paperwork, Bahrani provides us no small impression of how much work his lead character has to do.
Henry and his family may be doing better than most but, like plenty of their real world counterparts, they are honestly struggling to keep themselves afloat in a low-tide economy. As Jeff Nichols did in Take Shelter, Bahrani makes no effort to coyly obscure the specific facts and figures, the simple numbers on a page that could lead to the Whipples’ financial survival or demise. Even among the relatively wealthy, Bahrani knows, disaster is always a subtraction or addition away.
In other ways, Bahrani takes the opposite path of Take Shelter. Where that film was expressionistic – the mental landscape of Michael Shannon’s lead exerting its influence on the world as he experienced it – At Any Price adopts an urgent and vérité approach. The realism with which Bahrani treats the locations and the material is supplemented with subtly stylized close-ups and a persistent sense of movement. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ camera never rests. But this isn’t the agitated fidgeting of a Michael Bay film, where you feel the director is trying to keep you from falling asleep. This is a curious, eager and focused seeking out of more visual information, like Robert Altman on Adderall.
That realist approach is disconcertingly undercut at times by a troubling tendency toward melodrama. Henry’s chief rival in seed sales, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), just happens to have a son, Brad (Ben Marten), who is Dean’s chief rival on the racetrack. Dean and Brad repeatedly meet outside of competition, as well, in ways that too conveniently mirror the relationship between Henry and Jim. And Meredith is transparently a device despite Graham’s well-tuned performance.
Ultimately, it’s easy to forgive Bahrani for resorting to the occasional narrative crutch when the result is, on the whole, a film that is as big a statement as it is sharp and precise. In many ways, it actually is about the real America, where loyalty is to family above others and the pursuit of prosperity trumps that of happiness. It’s the point of view of At Any Price that those truths have consequences that are both good and bad.