Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo all belong on the top shelf of recent American independent film; they’re notable for their sense of intimacy, visual incandescence, and feel for everyday interactions. But Bahrani’s latest film, At Any Price, is a misfire. Dennis Quaid stars as a prosperous Iowa farmer and seed salesman who spends most of the film worrying. He worries that he’s losing territory to his more successful colleague Clancy Brown, that his father is ashamed of him because his sons have shown no interest in carrying on the family business, and that his various financial improprieties and sexual indiscretions are about to be exposed. While Quaid worries, At Any Price delivers what amounts to a State Of The American Farm address, embedded in a narrative about how the drive for success leads people to make choices that compromise their integrity—and perversely, their happiness.
This time out, Bahrani’s push to make a point wins out over the strong sense of character he’s cultivated in his earlier films. Bahrani’s intentions are good, and the movie’s plot (co-written with Hallie Elizabeth Newton) is suitably complex, thanks in large part to the parallel story of Quaid’s son Zac Efron, a rising but volatile star on the NASCAR circuit. The racing scenes in At Any Price are beautifully shot; the whole movie looks as good as Bahrani’s previous work. There aren’t enough American films that venture this deep into the lush-but-troubled farmland, where rural tradition is often in conflict with modern technology and corporate greed.
But the dialogue and performances in At Any Price are about at the level of a Founders’ Day pageant. To some extent, this is intentional, given that Bahrani has said he wanted to make a mainstream melodrama, into which he could embed some serious consideration of contemporary farm policy. But in the process, he’s revealed an inadvertent contempt for his theoretical audience of ordinary, non-arthouse moviegoers. He’s treating them like dolts by making a film that holds to the corniest aspects of Hollywood storytelling, interrupted by bullet points.