Chasing the American Dream is a theme so pervasive in US cinema – and often beyond – that it scarcely seems like a theme at all: it’s the principle upon which much Hollywood storytelling is built, after all. But few filmmakers have done as much in recent years to redefine and recontextualize the Dream as Ramin Bahrani. North Carolina-born, but of Iranian heritage, Bahrani has a distinct personal perspective on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that has colored all his work to date: the late Roger Ebert, one of his earliest and most loyal champions, has repeatedly described him as the best American director of his generation.
His first three features – “Man Push Cart” (2005), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Goodbye Solo” (2008) – were all delicate independent explorations of the immigrant experience in the US. For his fourth, however, Bahrani has made a significant stylistic departure to examine the Dream from the inside: powered by two big-name leading men and embracing robust Hollywood melodrama, “At Any Price” is a searching study of the financial, psychological and generational conflicts roiling the serene surface of America’s farming heartland.
“One of the things that interested me about going into the heartland was how different it was from our collective consciousness about it,” says Bahrani. “When I first got out to Iowa, I was thinking how unlike the Terrence Malick vision of that environment – which I love – it had become. There’s something so new about it now: the farmers aren’t simple folk in overalls with a vegetable garden, but highly sophisticated businessmen, navigating and negotiating very complex structures. All of that seemed, compared to my other films, a fresh way to look at the American Dream, this time from within: the characters aren’t immigrants, and they actually have money, yet they’re still under a significant amount of pressure.”
Midwestern masculinity takes a hit, too, in a story that shows long-held patriarchal structures – whereby sons inherit their fathers’ land, businesses and, ultimately, identities – being challenged by internal and external forms of corruption. Our protagonist Henry Whipple (even his name sounds archetypal) is an Iowan commercial farmer who has successfully brought his business into the 21st century through ethical compromise: opportunistically grabbing land from fading rivals and trading in genetically modified seeds. Small wonder his young son Dean has no interesting in inheriting this grubby enterprise, instead fostering ambitions of being a NASCAR racer.
The morally fraught battle for mutual understanding that ensues between these two stubborn, only superficially different men is by no means an exclusively contemporary one: no attempt is made to disguise the influence of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” for example, while Bahrani admits to the influence of great American filmmakers from George Stevens to Robert Altman. The star casting, meanwhile, is particularly canny, as Bahrani picks two all-American heartthrobs to reflect both each other as well as the ideals of their society: as Dean, Zac Efron’s bright-eyed wholesomeness takes on a bitter edge, but it’s Dennis Quaid, as Henry, who carries the film’s chief dramatic burden: a foxy salesman who nonetheless senses his powers of persuasion waning in the face of his son’s contempt, he’s a slicker modern answer to Miller’s Willy Loman.
“Ramin and I talked about Loman from the very beginning,” says Quaid, his typically chipper demeanor ever-so-slightly slowed by tiredness: he’s come off eight weeks of shooting “Vegas” for TV. “Like him, Henry’s a character who has been chasing the American Dream and become corrupted in the process. As a salesman, he has to project a public face of confidence, but because he’s under the rule of a corrupt system, you gradually see the self-loathing beneath. He’s actually quite unlikeable to begin with, and that ambiguity interested me. I don’t think the film has an agenda. Ramin’s films never do: they’re really just out to hold a mirror up to life.”
I mention to Quaid that his portrait of Henry reminded me of another of best performances, as a closeted 1950s family man in Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven”: the two characters ostensibly have little in common, but share a kind of weariness with the authoritative masculine role society has dictated they play.
“I thought a lot about that character too,” Bahrani adds. “They’re both so conflicted, and there’s something so physical about the way Dennis projects that conflict – I recognized that on set, but didn’t realize how calculated it all was until I was in the editing room. Then I could see more what he was up to in terms of details like how he held his shoulders, how he clenched his fists, the movements and mannerisms of his face, and when he’d allow cracks in the salesman performance to appear.”
“As a character, he grew more interesting for me the more pressure he was put under,” agrees Quaid. “It’s definitely a generational story: after all, this farm has been passed from father to son for years, and when Henry finds that his son doesn’t want it, that upsets the order of things. And Dean sees his father as a pathetic figure – everything he doesn’t want to be, but already is to some extent.” The older star reserves particular praise for Efron’s performance in defining this conflict: “He’s really excellent here… Zac has all the tools in his toolbox to be a great actor.”
There’s strong supporting work, too, from Red West – the star of Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo” – as Henry’s own father, who observes his son’s questionable handling of his legacy with stolid skepticism. “You get the sense that the same pressures Henry has felt from his dad all his life are the same ones he’s now setting on his son,” says Bahrani. “In a way, the two characters who are more connected are Dean and his grandfather, who has a kind of respect for his progressive cunning, and sees in him a way for the farm to keep moving forward.”
That, of course, threatens Dean’s own personal ambitions; the film is a complex deconstruction of the American Dream, certainly, but also of individual ones. Bahrani continues: “Dean’s car-racing dream is one of those that’s a good dream when you’re a kid, but ultimately, you find your life moving in a different direction. Not many people end up realizing their childhood dreams.” He pauses. “Well, Dennis and I happen to be lucky exceptions.”
Meanwhile, for Bahrani, the chance to work with a star of Quaid’s standing fulilled an ambition you wouldn’t have guessed the director had fostered from his earlier films. “I knew when I was writing the project that I wanted to push myself creatively in ways I hadn’t done with my previous films,” he says. “I love those films, but I was getting restless and wanted to enlarge my scope: economics, politics, a larger cast of characters in a larger emotional story, a world I hadn’t worked in before. And the first thing I thought was that I needed movie stars to do that.”
It was Quaid’s agent who suggested the star to the director, though Bahrani had been a fan of the star from childhood. “I’d grown up loving Dennis’s films, going all the way back to ‘Breaking Away’ – a deeply American film made by immigrants, funnily enough,” he says. It was seeing Quaid in a more casual context, however, that convinced the director to cast him. “It sounds funny, but the first thing I did once I got off the phone was to Google Dennis, and I ended up watching him on ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show,’ where he was doing a hilarious improvisational comedy routine, saying, ‘I am Dennis Quaid! I am Dennis Quaid!’ And I called his agent back straight away. I rewatched some of his films over the next few days too, but for some reason, that bit made me pretty sure he was the guy.”
Bahrani, meanwhile, is grateful to his producers for letting him “mix things up a bit” in the casting: real-life farmers George Naylor and Troy Roush, introduced to Bahrani by “Food, Inc.” director Michael Pollan, make appearances, while the key role of Dean’s girlfriend was filled by an unknown, Maika Monroe. “Some very famous actresses were interested in the part, and their audition tapes were excellent,” he admits. “But I liked Maika’s freshness.”
Quaid, meanwhile, was attracted by Bahrani’s very ability to work with less seasoned or non-professional actors. “Working with fresh filmmakers like Ramin is what keeps it fresh to me,” he says. “I saw Ramin’s films, which I wasn’t familiar with at the time, and was so impressed: especially ‘Chop Shop,’ with that incredible young boy. I was interested in working with a director who can get that even out of non-actors: there seems to be no acting involved in his films. It feels more like watching a documentary than a movie.”
Not all critics have embraced Bahrani’s merging of his indie sensibility with mainstream stars and structures: the film met with a divided reception at the Venice Film Festival, even prompting some boos at its first press screening. Though he has made some alterations to the film since then – “I trimmed about two minutes from it and took out a few music cues, and really enjoy it more now,” he says – Bahrani claims he was always prepared for the pushback.
“Michael Barker at Sony said to me, ‘There will be so people who are angry you haven’t made the same film again.’ Well, good: I have no interest in doing that. Thank God Visconti didn’t make ‘La Terra Trema’ over and over again, you know? He’d never have made ‘The Leopard.’ If Scorsese had stuck with the ‘Mean Streets’ model, he’d never have reached the heights of ‘GoodFellas.’ I’m not saying I’ve made ‘GoodFellas’ by any stretch of the imagination, but why shouldn’t I strive to do so?”
Bahrani is going smaller again with his next project, an Orlando-based film set around the housing crisis, but is open to further big-name collaborations: after screening the film in Washington, he was tickled by one audience member’s suggestion that he and Quaid do a film navigating the very different corruptive sphere of D.C. Politics. “I really like that idea,” he chuckles. “So if anybody reading this has a great screenplay out there, please send it to us!”
He’s half-joking, but it’s not hard to imagine a killer political thriller in Bahrani’s future, particularly given the layered ambiguity with which “At Any Price” handled its own modern American crisis – a morality tale that bravely dispenses with a clear moral. “All my films have had questions of morality, and of how human beings should behave toward one another, but I like to think none of them have had a moral stamp on them,” he says. “I’d rather they end in question marks than in conclusions or demands.”