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At Any Price

2013 | 105 min | R | 2.39:1

At Any Price


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Theatrical release date

 26 April, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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At Any Price


Screenshots from At Any Price Blu-ray

At Any Price Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, May 9, 2013

In the mid-eighties, there was bumper crop of films examining the plight of the red-blooded, family-oriented American farmer as they faced industry demands, corporate interests, and dwindling profits. In 2013, the vocation has changed radically, with little room for a personal touch, giving way to fields of crops born from genetically modified seeds, with Big Agriculture turning to science and law to control what was once an Earthly treasure shared by all. “At Any Price” uses the discomfort surrounding GMO seeds as a foundation for its story of domestic dissolve, but largely ignores the possibilities of the conflict. In fact, the results are quite disastrous when it steps away from farming concerns, resulting in a movie that’s unforgivably clunky, tone-deaf, and dreadfully acted.

Deep in the heart of Iowa, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is a fourth generation farmer building an empire by selling GMO seeds, looking to topple rival Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) in local sales and provide for his family, including wife Irene (Kim Dickens) and son Dean (Zac Efron). Unrest fills the Whipple household, with the eldest boy off in Argentina to scale mountains while farm work continues at home, while Dean has designs on leaving Iowa, pinning his hopes to a stock car race dream, spending free time with girlfriend Cadence (infuriating mumbler Maika Monroe). Looking to expand his farm, Henry turns on his salesman charms, only to run into trouble with the law when his illegal use of the seeds is suddenly called into question, creating panic that the Whipple Kingdom will topple, disgusting patriarch Cliff (Red West). Frustrated with his life and his racing future, Dean unleashes his resentment on Henry, while the father struggles to maintain his image and homestead as past deeds come back to haunt him.

Co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”), “At Any Price” struggles with tone and focus, lost somewhere in the middle of its aspiration to impart a message about the GMO seed industry and a late-inning attempt to urge the domestic drama into a Shakespearean tale of murder, lineage distress, and faux honor. Bahrani seems to think he’s shaping a portrait on the state of the agriculture union in the tradition of a Great American Novel, but he’s made an absolute mess, confusing characterizations and bungling a basic storytelling stride in his mad dash to trigger a sweep of generational woe that’s broad enough to sweep aside the mistakes made along the way. “At Any Price” aims big with its bazooka of corrupt Americana, only to routinely fire duds that make one feel badly for everyone involved.

To accept “At Any Price” requires patience with Quaid’s amplified performance. Playing a huckster and Iowa-certified father, the actor goes overboard in his effort to communicate broad Midwest friendliness and territorial business acumen (he’s referred to as a “shark” by those unable to keep up). It’s all big smiles, glad hands, and a processed accent, yet there’s no off button to the work, with Quaid often resembling a silent film performer getting his first taste of “the talkies,” but has no idea where the microphone is. It’s insufferable, absurdly overcooked acting. Efron is equally melodramatic, playing up the small town bad boy angle with model poses and needlessly busy gestures. Admittedly, it’s difficult to place blame entirely on the performers, finding Bahrani unable to direct basic scenes of conflict, always pushing the moment to stiff exchanges of bitterness, favoring Kabuki-style expressions to subtle screen acting.

Also hampering the actors are rather severe storytelling deficiencies that result in a few of the players entering and exiting the feature without explanation. Cadence is a good example, popping up in the opening act as though she’s been part of the family all along. It almost appears as though she lives with the Whipples due to her own parental issues, but it’s difficult to tell, and a burgeoning subplot with Henry taking the teen under his wing to learn the seed business is abruptly scraped off the picture after a considerable introduction. There’s trouble with Meredith (Heather Graham) as well. The town bicycle who’s sexually involved with Henry and Dean (their tryst takes place inside a filled corn silo -- yuck), there’s no explanation who this woman is or what she does. She’s just a blonde spoiler out to fill a tired screenwriting cliché, and poor Irene is equally indistinguishable, hit with infidelity and assorted lies, only to retain her prairie mother steadfastness with the least amount of personality possible. I’m not sure why she’s even in the film.

The seed controversy is more than enough to fill “At Any Price.” It’s a fascinating topic, rich with acts of deception and professional humiliation, but it’s not the feature Bahrani wants to make. He chases severity to highlight his theme of father and son relationships, with bombastic acts of sacrifice and guilt steamrolling over the movie’s finer points of distress. “At Any Price” dives into absurdity to make sure its audience is sufficiently rattled, exaggerating conflict to point of unintentional humor. It’s nearly a parody of itself.

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Ben Marten
Director: Ramin Bahrani

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