For his first three films, director Ramin Bahrani painted on a small canvas. He worked exclusively with non-professional actors and tended to use handheld digital video. It’s now been five years since his last film, “Goodbye Solo,” and it’s not surprising he would want to move up to bigger budgets.
In order to secure those budgets, for “At Any Price,” he’s had to work with Hollywood stars — Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid — for the first time. An Iranian-American who grew up in North Carolina, Bahrani’s earlier work suggested he saw Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami as a role model; “Goodbye Solo” was a partial remake of Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry.” When Kiarostami worked with Juliette Binoche in “Certified Copy,” the result was a triumph for both, but Bahrani’s direction of Quaid, if not Efron, is particularly clumsy.
In the opening scene of “At Any Price,” Henry Whipple (Quaid) approaches a man at a funeral and offers to buy his land. The man is appropriately outraged, but nevertheless sells it to Henry. However, Henry’s once-booming Iowa agricultural business is hitting hard times. Farmers are switching to genetically modified (GMO) seeds, and Henry has illegally been reusing seeds culled from GMO plants and is in danger of being discovered by his supplier. Meanwhile, his son Dean (Efron) dreams of becoming a NASCAR driver rather than inheriting the family farm. Dean’s brother, never seen in the film, has escaped Iowa altogether. He sends postcards from Argentina, where he climbs mountains.
As played by Quaid, Henry is the ultimate salesman. He pours on the charm, even in situations where it’s not appropriate — or believable. Henry seems on the verge of a caffeine overdose — his happiness has a sharp edge to it. The second half of “At Any Price” calls for a more complex emotional range, which Quaid finally delivers, but even at his best, his work seems two-dimensional. Henry’s supposed to be an everyman, but Quaid plays him like a larger-than-life figure. Bahrani was much more confident directing non-professional actors.
In his first three films, Bahrani seemed to look overseas — to Italian and Iranian versions of neo-realism — for inspiration. All that has changed in “At Any Price.” This film’s cinematography is full of green corn fields, captured in luscious long shots. Bahrani has turned to classic American cinema, particularly the elegiac films of the ‘70s. Yet he seems reluctant to commit to a fully happy ending — that would mean overlooking the damage his characters do to each other — or an entirely downbeat one, which might not fly with the wider audience he’s trying to court. Instead, he settles for an ironic middle ground, where any joy is strictly temporary and provisional — in theory, at least. Douglas Sirk might have been able to pull it off, but Bahrani can’t.
“At Any Price” is full of signifiers of the present. The whole plot revolves around GMO seeds. Dean is briefly seen watching YouTube videos of car crashes and repeatedly shown listening to contemporary hard rock. Still, the film describes the dilemmas of our time in a language that seems nostalgic, even if Henry’s father warns him that the good old days weren’t so great after all. Much of the time, the film has a political edge, Henry’s slogan “expand or die” resonating well beyond agriculture.
Bahrani’s neo-realist influences seem replaced by themes from the theater, with sons paying the price of their fathers’ sins and capitalism sounding downright murderous. The shift does not create a coherent whole. One moment, the film comes across like a morality play. The next, it’s an exposé of Big Agriculture's corruption. The thread needed to connect these agendas remains missing.
AT ANY PRICE | Directed by Ramin Bahrani | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens Apr. 24 | Angelika Film Center | 18 W. Houston at Mercer St. | angelikafi