Left to Right: Zac Efron as Dean, Kim Dickens as Irene and Dennis Quaid as Henry.
(Photo : Photo Credit: Matt Dinerstein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
The Midwest has never been featured consistently in cinema, but such recent films as "Promised Land" and director Ramin Bahrani's "At Any Price" have attempted to give greater prominence to the region. For his fifth feature, Bahrani has set his narrative in a small town in Iowa where nothing ever happens and where all the local families are either farmers or unemployed. His story revolves around the Whipples, a family that has a successful agricultural history. However when the family's business is threatened by an unexpected crisis, the relationship between a father and his rebellious son is tested. This premise, while familiar, seems to have tremendous potential given its context and location, but the script never unfolds organically and instead presents the viewer with characters that are merely plot devices and bad performances by both leading men.
At its initiation, the film introduces a montage of Henry (Dennis Quaid), Irene (Kim Dickens) and their two children Grant and Dean (Zac Efron) as a happy family growing up on the farm. By the end, the sequence reveals that Grant is leaving town for college while Dean is apparently very happy working on his race car driving skills. When the montage ends, the film cuts to a shot of both Dean and Henry upset as they attend a funeral where Henry plans on doing a business transaction to buy the deceased man's land.
Henry then plans on giving the land to his preferred son Grant and starts to organize a welcome back party for him. However he is soon disappointed when Grant sends him a letter saying he will climb the Andes Mountains in Argentina. Upset, he decides to give them to Dean who has no interest in them because his dream is to leave town and race in NASCAR.
Bahrani then introduces Jim Johnson (Clancey Brown), a local farmer and rival to the Whipple family who picks up some of Henry's clients and becomes the number one seller and farmer in town. After that, the viewer is introduced to Byron, a friend of Henry's who asks him for work but gets the cold shoulder instead. From there, a stressed-out Henry goes to his lover, Meredith (Heather Graham) while his son Dean raids a local shop and steals parts for his car with his girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe). The tension between father and son increases as Dean prepares to leave Henry without an heir, but complications arise further when Henry starts to be investigated by an agency he buys from for supposedly illegal purchases.
This describes the first hour of the film which continues to introduce new characters and never ending dialogues scenes but never shows a clear hook or premise and the viewer constantly questions which direction the film will move in but never gets a satisfactory answer. Is it about a businessman trying to save his family's inheritance, or about a wife and husbands ruptured relationship? Is it about a son trying to escape his boring life and try and explore? The answer is that the film is about all of these things, but ultimately fails to explore any with great depth. More importantly, the tension of the script does not even materialize until the final half hour, but any suspense created by this event feels like its dragged on for too long afterward.
Visually, the film is excruciatingly repetitive, even in its casting choices; for example, every single female character is a blonde. There are some intial moments where it is hard to distinguish between the two middle aged female characters. Bahrani has a major interest in showing off corn fields and wind mills; even after introducing the setting, he feels the need to continue showcasing the environment in ever repetitive manner. There is also a cheesy sequence in which Bahrani cuts to all of the characters singing the national anthem prior to the races. Not only is the patriotic gesture too emphatic and heavy-handed, but it lasts way too long and seems unnecessary in the context of film. The most important plot point derived from this sequence is that Meredith watches Henry and his wife embracing. The scene implies that she is jealous and eventually moves in on their son as her next prey, but even that plot point is never fully-fleshed and makes the whole sequence feel unnecessary.
The film also hurt by its flimsy performances. Dennis Quaid is at the core of this film and yet he can't elevate this muddled mess. He relies too heavily on facial expressions such twitching eyes, and curling lips. He is also too awkward during many scenes. For example, when Dean returns from the hospital after crashing his car, he starts dancing around to show off the new car he bought him. This moment almost feels like he's trying way too hard to be sympathetic and instead comes off as a annoying and awkward. He repeats these exaggerated gestures throughout the rest of the film.
Zac Efron is another issue because he can't emote on screen. All he gives are blank stares regardless of his emotional state. The lack of range makes it hard to empathize or even attempt to be drawn into his thoughts. Every single time he has an emotional scene, the director cuts away to a wide shot almost to hide the fact that he can't get an honest response from him.
The supporting cast is even more disastrous. Heather Graham is billed third in the credits because she is the most prominent female in the cast, but her inclusion is inconsequential. When first introduced she is having sex with Henry (this writer mistakenly thought she was his wife because they look alike). Graham's character Meredith shows up one more times to have sex with Henry and then gets upset upon seeing him hug his wife; one might infer that she realizes at this is moment that she will not have anything serious with him but then again, did he ever promise her anything? None of this is explored and makes her development feel empty. Because she is "rejected" by Henry, she decides to seduce his son. She makes one comment to him after a race and then disappears only to reappear to have more sex. And then she is finished. Her character goes nowhere and only serves as a sexual plot device. Graham's stale delivery does little to elicit empathy or even create an allure.
Kim Dickens, who plays Henry's wife Irene, is equally bland. Her only emotional moments come when she confronts her husband over his affair, but she never really asserts her presence at any point in the film.
However newcomer Maika Monroe, who plays Dean's girlfriend Cadence, gives the most likeable performance of all the characters. Her unkempt clothes and hair emphasize her directionless character and she lends innocent charisma during scenes as Henry's intern. At one point she saves Henry's business proposition by coming up with a slick and unexpectedly confident answer. Unfortunately, her character gets jettisoned in the second half of the film and a major confrontation between Dean and Cadence that should extend their conflicted relationship devolves into expository dialogue about the agents inspecting crops.
Ultimately, "At Any Price" amounts to nothing more than a soap opera with unlikeable characters and dumb plot devices. The film's major problem is that it attempts to incorporate a plethora of American themes such as capitalism, father and son relationships, and even broken marriages and families, but fails to unite them in a coherent fashion that is clear for the viewer. The result is a film that feels directionless and inserts all sorts of melodramatic clichés to move the plot to its predictable and unearned conclusion.
"At Any Price" screens at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19, 23