September 10, 2012


With the notable exception of Friday Night Lights, Hollywood has rarely even attempted a serious depiction of life in the American heartland in recent years.  More often, the center of the country is a setting for stories of random violence or bland, heartwarming family values.  In his fourth feature film, AT ANY PRICE, director Ramin Bahrani, with his co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton, explores the surprisingly fresh territory of life in the modern American farm system.

The protagonist family is the Whipples, headed by Henry (Dennis Quaid).  Henry’s father Cliff (Red West, who starred in Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo) is still alive, but he’s passed on the large, but not overwhelming, family acreage to Henry.  The business of farming has changed, though, from the days of stable family holdings, and the new motto of the industry is “Get Big Or Get Out.”  Henry has subscribed to that philosophy with a vengeance, predatorily buying up the land of farmers who’ve passed away, and not only using genetically-enhanced seeds but selling them to other Iowa farmers.  In fact, because those seeds are patented by their manufacturer, and their distribution is limited by license, Henry’s sales have violated his contract, and if they’re discovered, they could destroy his business.

In Bahrani’s introduction to the film’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival, he compared Henry to Willy Loman, and like Willie, Henry has told himself that he’s done everything for his sons, while simultaneously driving them away.  One is off climbing mountains in South America, with no desire to return home, while the younger son, Dean (Zac Efron), wants no part of the farm, instead pursuing his own dreams of NASCAR racing  and battling his own demons.  Henry is also cheating on his loyal wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with former cheerleader Meredith (Heather Graham).

At Any Price is Bahrani’s first relatively conventional narrative film after micro-budgeted indies, and he and Newton do a very sturdy job of developing the characters and setting, faltering only a bit in the last act when Efron’s storyline has to take on too much melodrama (although those contrivances pay off in the end).  Even minor characters like Meredith and Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) are well drawn and multi-dimensional.  The acting is first-rate all around, with Quaid a particular stand-out as a man whose drive has run over his family.  Efron’s work is beyond reproach, as he continues to earn dramatic cred, and he holds his own with Quaid.  Michael Simmonds, who’s shot all of Bahrani’s films, gives Price a look that’s lyrical without Malick-like self-indulgence, and there’s a fine score by Dickon Hinchliffe.

At Any Price is a modest movie that could easily be lost amid more overtly ambitious productions, so it’s good to see that Sony Pictures Classics has picked it up and will give it a theatrical release.  It’s a fresh picture of an integral part of American culture that is talked about exhaustively, especially by politicians (and especially in an election season), but is rarely probed in drama.  It deserves to be seen.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."