You wouldn’t expect a filmmaker like Ramin Bahrani, who previously helmed the multi-ethnic films Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, to dive deep into America’s heartland for his latest film, At Any Price, solely planting his camera in the faces of corn-fed white folk. But since this film deals with themes of family, success, failure, tragedy and, ultimately, compromise — just like most of the North Carolina native’s films — it doesn’t seem odd that he directed this after all.
This movie has Dennis Quaid, all weaselly and unctuous, as an Iowa farmer who has no qualms trying to buy land off a grieving family during a funeral. He’s looking to build a family farming empire, which may cease to exist since his sons are pursuing other interests — one son is somewhere in Argentina climbing mountains, another (the forever-babyfaced Zac Efron) has aspirations of being a NASCAR driver — and agents are snooping around his fields to see if he is illegally reusing genetically modified seeds.
As much as Bahrani (who co-wrote the film with Hallie Newton) delves into the cutthroat, corndog-eat-corndog world of corporate farming, Price is mostly about father-son relationships and the tension and turmoil that come along with them. The movie lays the drama on too thick in the second half, as a fatal mistake reluctantly brings Quaid and Efron’s characters closer. (The always indispensible Kim Dickens does a fine job as the mother who quietly holds her family together.)
From there, the movie descends into its own bleak, hopeless abyss, attempting to prove that the Corn Belt is a land filled with as many dashed hopes and broken dreams as the average big city. (Heather Graham does a rather thankless turn as a former cheerleader-turned-town side ho, usually there for a quickie with Quaid’s character when she isn’t pathetically setting her sights on Efron’s.) As admirable as it is for Bahrani to show that white folks in Middle America can have problems just as bad as minorities everywhere else, At Any Price is still a dry heap of Midwest misery.