At Any Price

Screened at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival.

In his gushing introduction before the Telluride screening of At Any Price, director Ramin Bahrani referenced Willy Loman. Big talk, but Death of a Salesman is indeed the perfect lens through which to watch this classical American tragedy about the march of progress bearing down on stalwarts of the old guard. Constructed around several trusty Hollywood formulas, the film is an easy, enchanting sit, but it’s also much trickier and more intricate than the early reviews are suggesting. These characters grew up chasing the American Dream, but the American Dream has turned its back on them — and the entire film is set in its shadow.

The geographical setting is Iowa, where Henry Whipple’s family farm and seed-selling business is fighting for its life. Henry (Dennis Quaid) is an old-fashioned smooth-talker who instructs his glum son Dean (Zac Efron) – an aspiring stock car racer who has little interest in his father’s trade – that “people like winners,” so chin up. In one of the first scenes, Henry and his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) are literally rolling out the red carpet for Dean’s older brother Grant, the local football hero who’s supposed to be coming back from college, but a postcard announces that Grant’s chosen to go backpacking through Argentina instead. Liberty Seeds – the thinly-veiled stand-in for Monsanto whose product Henry hawks to fellow farmers, as well as plants on his own land – is instructing Henry and small farmers like him to “expand or die,” while a glad-handing, tie-wearing salesman (Clancy Brown) horns in on his territory.

We watch the Whipples’ world close in on them. Dean turns to robbery to fuel his NASCAR ambitions, which he sees as his ticket out of Iowa. Henry fools around with a younger woman (Heather Graham) while his seed business hemorrhages customers, and Liberty opens an investigation into the possibility that he is cleaning and reusing its product. (Growers sign contracts obligating themselves to buy seeds anew each year, on pain of a lawsuit and probable bankruptcy.) Henry’s father implores him not to destroy what two generations before him worked to build, and he grows desperate.

At Any Price is direct and straightforward, with a tendency to bluntly verbalize its themes. (Henry laments to his dad the good old days when the Whipples had a small cattle and chicken farm: “Things like this wouldn’t happen those days. Those times were so… simple.”) Some will take this as their cue to dismiss it as heavy-handed and too on-the-nose. There’s no doubt that Bahrani has taken a giant stride toward Hollywood with this film, which bears little resemblance to the subdued Goodbye Solo, and almost none to his earlier slices-of-life Chop Shop and Man Push Cart.

But while At Any Price borrows from some Hollywood conventions, it doesn’t hew to them. Bahrani’s real concern isn’t Dean’s NASCAR quest, or Henry’s seed-selling rivalry, or some of the genre elements that are introduced later. He wants, instead, to convey the shifts that have left the Whipples in the dust. The brave new world they’re facing is all around them, and there’s no escaping it. No amount of charm or sweet talk will get the Liberty Seeds goons to cut Henry a break. Fierce competitors keep nipping at his heels. Giant metal windmills mar the landscape, and key scenes are set to the sound of them oppressively churning in the background.

Though Bahrani may be moving toward the mainstream here, he remains an empathetic, nuanced chronicler of the American working class. He also proves comfortable working with a professional cast and a traditional narrative. His characters are constructed from archetypes, but they come to breathe on their own. Henry’s relationship with his son is particularly rich; Bahrani feints at the cliché of the thoughtless father who tells his dreamer son that he’ll “never make it in the big leagues,” then immediately undercuts it. Quaid is excellent in a big, showy role.

The story heads for a conclusion that’s not nearly as happy as it might seem. Things are only going to get harder for these people. The world that created them is gone, and they can’t get it back, not at any price.

-- Eugene Novikov

One Comment

  1. Seeing this today (Monday)…your reference to “Death of a Salesman” really caught my eye since I know you saw the revival with Hoffman and Garfield in New York. Makes me want to see it even more.

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