At Any Price Finds Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron Down on the Farm

Zac Efron as Dean, Dennis Quaid as Henry and Kim Dickens as Irene in At Any Price.
Matt Dinerstein / Sony Pictures Classics

Writer-director Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price 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. Here it's not bad weather or greedy banks that places a large, third-generation family farm in jeopardy but the doughy, Penney's-clad inspectors of an agricultural biotech corporation. Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has enlarged his farmstead by absorbing competitors; his deepest wish is to pass it to a son, but the youngest, Dean (Zac Efron), hates farming. The setting's austerity strips the generational drama down to the archetypal terms best articulated by James Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues: "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's go-nowhere character. The film, which compares Henry's reuse of corporate seeds 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 dire legal consequences, invokes wistful memories of his simpler childhood, his dad smacks him down, casting the American dream as a modern, air-conditioned combine "that drives itself with GPS."

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