Review: Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron defeat the dream in smart, muscular ‘At Any Price’

VENICE – “God, that was a lot of America,” I heard an Italian critic remark to his companion as they slouched out of “At Any Price” at the Venice Film Festival earlier this evening. His tone did not convey great delight at this perceived abundance; perhaps he was among the few but unignorable critics heard lustily booing as the credits rolled on Bahrani’s classically involving and unexpectedly robust drama of heartland morality spread thin amid the cornfields of Southern Iowa .

He wasn’t wrong, however. America is an almost punitively dominant presence in “At Any Price”: we’re treated to a complete rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung in an assortment of isolated, unlovely voices, midway through the film, while the Red, White and Blue itself is a pronounced presence in many a composition, furling and flapping above characters’ heads like a veritable reproach.

You’d have to be almost clinically tone-deaf , however, to mistake this brashly inquisitive film for any kind of exercise in flag-waving; to label it anti-American, however, would be equally far of the mark. When the wife (Kim Dickens) of Henry Whipple, a genially buttery commercial farmer (Dennis Quaid) suggests that putting an image of Uncle Sam on his flyers for Customer Appreciation Day might be a bit much, he breezily responds that “this is marketing.” Bahrani’s previous, lower-fi films have promoted the idea that being American is what you make it; in “At Any Price,” some are representing the pinnacle-driven brand with more integrity than others.

This is Bahrani’s first feature not to center on (nor even contain) an immigrant character, save for Henry’s off-screen elder son, a presence only in the regular postcards he sends from an adventure-seeking sojourn in Argentina — though it’s his fraught, farm-bound family members, including younger brother Dean (Zac Efron), who sometimes appear farther from home.

Over a single, crystal-blue summer, Whipple’s dully successful agricultural empire is brought to the brink of destruction with neo-Shakespearean gravity: having cultivated much of his fortune from ostensibly harmless but ethically unsound farming practices soon to raise the suspicions of corporate goons, the perma-chipper patriarch finds his sons uninterested in taking the reins of his business. But while one son has left the U.S. behind for indefinite global-citizen status (the postcards he sends are pointedly adorned with the Argentinian flag), Dean’s ambitions are, if anything, even more quintessentially American than corn harvesting: he wants to be a NASCAR racer.

As is implicit in the title, the destructiveness of competition is a rippling concern in Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton’s unpredictably expansive script, which seeds further conflicts like wild strawberry plants, while leaving some very testy ones hanging — less out of negligence, perhaps, than the sense that they’re doomed to remain unresolved. Henry’s drive to be the top seed seller in the state — no, that’s not a creepy sexual metaphor, though he is banging wilted cheerleader Meredith (Heather Graham) on the side  — takes money directly out of the pocket of rival farmer Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). As it happens, Johnson’s son is Dean’s chief competitor on the local racing circuit, setting in motion a violent rivalry with escalatingly severe consequences. Everyone’s American dream in this story comes at the expense of someone else’s.  

The unapologetic, occasionally ungainly symmetry of such plotting (and writing: “I’m looking at you and all I see is me,” says Meredith to Dean’s naive blonde girlfriend Cadence) should make it clear that Bahrani is working in a very different register here to the delicately observational indie miniatures on which he built his reputation. Some will find his new approach as heavy-handed or didactic as I found yesterday’s very different American address, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” It put me more in mind of the muscular Hollywood melodramas crafted by the likes of Nicholas Ray and George Stevens in the 1950s, back when star-driven character dramas about middle American insecurities were still big business — and not just because Bahrani has improbably secured the services of matinee dreamboat Efron, who looks more like a studio raffle prize circa 1957 with each passing film.

Bahrani doesn’t romanticize the human values of this faintly out-of-time society — a late-film gesture of folksy generational baton-passing from Henry to Dean rings disturbingly and deliberately false, given the secrets being guarded by this point — but he’s content to spend time on problematic protagonists who aren’t patronized as either local heroes or matchstick men of tragedy.

The performances are on much the same page. Efron does some solid, creditably unlikeable work here as the impetuous Dean, and Dickens brilliantly elevates her tersely written role as his careworn mother, socking the equivalent of the Laura Linney moment as the film’s finale turns eerily “Mystic River” in tone. But it’s an ideally-cast Quaid, whose performance could well net some awards attention if pitched right by Sony Pictures Classics, who has to shoulder the bulk of the film’s moral burden, as he’s gradually forced out of his rehearsed, sitcommy “American everyman” patter and into a subdued admission of an actual everyman’s shortfall between self-worth and self-doubt. There is, to requote a vexed Italian critic with a slightly different emphasis, a lot of America in this film.