Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani is one of the more interesting figures to emerge on the American indie scene in the past decade. His minimalist, New York-set dramas Man Push Cart and Chop Shop suggested a compelling new voice, immune to trends, and 2008's Goodbye Solo was the fulfillment of this demonstrated promise.
A return to Bahrani's native North Carolina, Goodbye Solo tracked the unlikely relationship between a sad old man (Memphis native Red West, who returns here in a smaller role) in Winston-Salem and the Senegalese immigrant cab driver he meets. Quiet, melancholy, but full of character, it was a more ambitious film for Bahrani and one of the best indies of the past decade.
With the new At Any Price, a family drama set against the cornfields of Iowa, Bahrani gets further from his comfort zone with a bigger and potentially more commercial feature. But the result is more of an interesting misfire.
Dennis Quaid is Henry Whipple, who operates a big — but maybe not big enough — family farm in rural Iowa while doubling as one of the region's most prominent seed salesmen. At the outset, we see Henry drag his son Dean (Zac Efron) to another farmer's funeral, before which he scolds, "You're too dark, son. That's always been your problem. People like winners. People with good attitudes."
After the funeral, Henry puts this good attitude to use, approaching the deceased's aghast daughter and son-in-law with an offer to take his land off their hands.
He's not a bad guy — though his transgressions extend beyond the family farm he's trying to keep afloat in the face of an industry that now demands you "expand or die, get big or get out." He's a desperate one, and the whys and hows of that desperation are investigated.
One tension comes from his sons, the favored elder, who doesn't seem to want to return from a post-college South American trip, and the black sheep Dean, who works on the farm reluctantly while pursuing his NASCAR dreams.
(Incidentally, the film might give Memphians a little Footloose-remake déjà vu: small-town setting, dirt-track racing scenes, Dennis Quaid as uptight patriarch, Kim Dickens as warm maternal figure.)
The divergent goals of father and son collide ultimately in the form of an unexpected crisis each has to deal with and At Any Price — witness the title — becomes a parable of sorts on the cost of ambition.
The film has a strong sense of place: Its feel for small-town farming culture and the disruptive influence of corporate practices on a traditional way of life feels truer, for instance, than the starrier but juicier recent message-movie Promised Land. And its fine "home movie" opening credits create a set of narrative and aesthetic expectations that the rest of the film can't quite fulfill.
Bahrani's attempt at exploring this territory is laudable and his plot is appreciably complex, but the film struggles to bring all of its strands together, and the stylized filmmaking — portentous close-ups, askew angles — lacks the assurance of the director's previous work.
At Any Price
Opening Friday, May 24th