“At Any Price” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:45, two and a half stars out of four.
From a distance, it looks like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell drawing. An old farmer has died, and among the waving fields of crops, friends and family have gathered to pay their last respects.
A handsome middle-aged man gets to the front of the receiving line, pays his respects to the farmer’s children – who left the rural community behind them years ago. And then, not too subtly, the man inquires whether the children would be willing to sell their father’s land to him.
The bereaved children recoil at such a naked ploy in the midst of such grief, send the man packing. The man nods and goes on his way. And, eventually, he gets the land.
When most movies treat family farming as a revered if threatened part of Americana, Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” dares to show an unromanticized version, with ugly, gnarled roots beneath the breathtaking fields of green. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) may look like the picture of small-town success, the sort of man who looks you square in the eye with a firm handshake. But to stay on top there he has to seize every opportunity, cut every corner – and shake the hand of every dead man’s son.
While Henry touts himself as a “family farmer,” in truth he stays afloat by mergers and acquisitions, continually acquiring more and more acreage. He also is busy as the representative for a Monsanto-like seed corporation, selling genetically-modified seeds to his neighbors.
But a rival salesman (Clancy Brown) is just a bit better at glad-handing that he is, and he’s losing customers. Meanwhile, the seed company is investigating whether Henry used some of the product himself without authorization, which would be against the law. Quaid is perfect for the role, his boyish aw-shucks charm having weathered and hardened into something more calculating, more predatory.
Life inside Henry’s farmhouse isn’t exactly a picture of bucolic harmony either. His older son lit out for the other side of the world as soon as he was of age, leaving the family legacy in the hands of his younger son, Dean (Zac Efron). Only Dean doesn’t want to follow in the family business, preferring to race stock cars and get in fistfights. He’s inherited his father’s cruel streak but not his sense of responsibility.
Bahrani’s past films, including the excellent “Goodbye Solo,” gave his characters lots of space and time to breathe, to establish themselves. But “At Any Price” is a little too busy, a little too much in a hurry to score points and make statements about how corporate influence is warping modern farming.
It’s a worthy subject, but perhaps one that doesn’t fit well within a family drama. Bahrani is striving for something epic and tragic — Shakespeare among the soybeans — but too often the film settles for merely melodramatic.