Farm films blow up human drama to mythic, big-sky terms in which the world itself is represented by a character's land, hard-earned and easily lost. Vast landscapes, both psychic and literal, are threatened by unstoppable outside forces. Kind of like zombie movies, farm films are vast canvases for directors to project whatever social issues ring their philosophical cherries. The villains are often greedy banks or bad weather, but director Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price places a large, third-generation family farm in jeopardy not from a faceless lending institution, but from the doughy, JCPenney-clad inspectors of an agricultural biotech corporation.
Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has enlarged his family's bountiful farmstead by absorbing competitors, and he supplements his revenues with a side venture as seed distributor for a Monsanto-like company. His neighbors all do the same, squinting and smiling with multiple rows of serrated teeth during community gatherings. Bahrani finds tension between rapacious capitalism and the idealized fiction of rural life in farming communities, especially as they engage in decidedly unpastoral, commodity-based feeding frenzies.
Whipple's deepest wish is to pass his family's legacy to his sons, but the oldest has fled across the globe, and the youngest, Dean (Zac Efron), hates farming. That kid is also a rebel who rejects your precious rules. The setting's austerity strips the generational drama down to the archetypal terms that were best articulated by James Van Der Beek telling Thomas Duffy in Varsity Blues, "Ah don't wahnt yore lahf." A talented amateur stock car driver, Dean aspires to be a NASCAR racer and speed away from Iowa, probably ripping a few doughnuts through the cornfields on his way out.
And what kid wouldn't want to escape this hard-featured landscape? It's an unpretty topography of corrugated silos, cornfields, and hard sun, where there's exactly one career option open to high school graduates. Bahrani's portrayal of the culture cuts deep, ringing true in its dialogue, Walmart wardrobes, and such small details as Henry's humble Casio watch and the Mead notepad in his shirt pocket.
Whipple is a man who lives at a significant distance from his soul, a wedge driven by his overbearing father (Red West), to whom revenue growth is greater than filial concerns, and to whom Henry has unfortunately never dared say, "Ah don't wahnt yore lahf." As the film begins, glad-handing Henry is pitching an offer for a dead man's land to a bereaved family, right outside the cemetery gates, which gives you some idea of his footing, soul-proximity-wise.
Quaid has a genius for broadcasting conflicting impulses. His body language twists uncomfortably away from his intentions, and his smile is built on the chassis of a cringe. Married to Irene (Treme's awesome Kim Dickens), whom he clearly loves, Whipple has tawdry office trysts with Heather Graham. Is it worse that he makes money on the down-low by violating genetic patents, holding back part of his harvest and reselling the seed stock?
The film, which compares Quaid's agricultural shenanigans to DVD piracy, weighs patent infringement and adultery about equally. Therefore, according to the transitive property of moral transgressions, the exchange rate for spousal betrayal is 1:1 with ripping The Avengers. When Henry, facing the dire legal consequences of his actions, invokes wistful memories of his simpler, but more impoverished, childhood, his dad smacks him down, casting the American dream as a modern, air-conditioned combine "that drives itself with GPS."
Henry's primary competitor, salesman Jim Johnson, is played by Clancy Brown, here as crinkly and unctuous as Quaid. Johnson has scooped up some of Henry's big seed accounts, and his hotheaded son challenges Dean on the racetrack. Where Henry's business anxieties are visibly eating him alive, Brown is immune to the toxicity of laissez-faire agro-nomics. Business is business, and the dismaying profundity of his faith is closely aligned with Henry's dad's. "Expand or die" is the mantra Henry's father handed down, the implication being that, in farm films, someone will have to do both.
The film does have its warm, beating heart. Dean's girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), is smart enough to help Henry win back a lost client and to shame the older woman with designs on her boyfriend. Monroe is charismatic and funny, imbuing Cadence with uncynical irony and emotional depth. Cadence's ultimate unwillingness to put up with Dean's bullshit gives the film a moral compass and pretty much makes her the only character to walk away uncompromised.
In one of Bahrani's few missteps, the film's title sequence suggests that the Whipples are the only family left in the United States who capture all their happy moments in anachronistic, scratchy Super-8 footage. The format creates a forced idyllic memoryscape in assertive contrast to Whipple's cutthroat capitalism, but it's an overplayed hand, badly out of place in a film that doesn't include kids in Davy Crockett hats, and an overdetermined metaphor for themes Bahrani illuminates later.