'At Any Price' reaps disappointing harvest

In director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani’s Iowa corn country-set drama, At Any Price, Henry Whipple is a hustling seed salesman.

Played by a manic Dennis Quaid, Whipple is a third-generation farmer who lives by the modern-day agribusiness code of “expand or die.” In the film’s first few minutes, he ruthlessly, shamelessly expands his already 3,000-acre farm by another 200 acres.

Quaid gives a deep performance of a shallow man. The short-sighted Whipple knows little about himself or the consequences of his actions. He keeps his eyes so narrowly focused upon his Whipple & Sons seed business that he doesn’t see his own family with anything close to clarity. Caught up in an aggressive world of big farming, he’s wearing blinders.

Bahrani and his co-writer, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, would have done well to focus more upon telling their story than following various non-productive paths. At Any Price swerves from Whipple’s hyperactive competitiveness with a business rival to Whipple’s sulking second-oldest son Dean’s compressed rage to incongruent moments that falsely signal that story is taking a hard left into lightheartedness.

Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), Whipple’s chief rival in selling Liberty Seeds’ genetically modified products, is taking counties and customers away from him. Whipple’s gruff father (Red West), rather than encourage his son or offer some useful advice, reacts with scorn.

With Whipple & Sons’ annual Customer Appreciation Day looming, Cliff Whipple barks, “You lose any more counties, there won’t be any more customers to appreciate!”

In a parallel story about Whipple’s grown sons’ disinterest in carrying on the family farm tradition, oldest boy Grant is a former high school football hero-turned world adventurer while younger son Dean is a local race car driver with his eyes on NASCAR glory.

There’s truth in the way the film depicts Henry as an oblivious parent who’s totally unaware of what a talented, serious driver Dean is. But Zac Efron, co-starring as Dean, is among the movie’s weaknesses.

Just as much of At Any Price is underdeveloped, Dean is an underwritten role. Efron’s severely limited range of expression further conspires against Dean being deserving of an audience’s interest and symphony. A less flat performance of this important character would have given the film a better chance.

Comparatively peripheral characters distract rather than help tell the Whipple family’s struggles. Maika Monroe appears as Dean’s sunny teen girlfriend, Cadence. While Cadence is a rare bright spot in the story, Heather Graham’s Meredith is a bitter local beauty stuck in corn country and a loveless affair with a married man.

Kim Dickens from HBO’s Treme plays Whipple’s steady wife, Irene, in a warm, non-showy performance that, unusually for At Any Price, strikes the right tone.

As things begin falling apart for the previously thriving Whipples, the family’s largely self-inflicted troubles turn into tragedy. The movie’s dark shift in tone, a consequence of the spiritual drought within Henry Whipple, has the corrupting effect of corn blight.

Bahrani and Newton craft an ending for their ill-defined heartland story but, like much of goes before, it doesn’t convince or satisfy. Multiple rewrites might have revived their disappointing harvest.