Ramin Bahrani has spent the last eight years making films mythologizing the hard work of being a citizen of the United States. But it's not the stars and stripes forever or the ne'er-do-well upstart that he's been crafting stories around. Instead he's been telling us about the people who can't bootstrap their way to success. People who, for many reasons, are trapped in their mode of production and can't escape. He tells their stories, the people who seem desperately close to losing what little they have, and how by inching forward they achieve greatness known to few.
Perhaps this is why his films have never quite obtained the audience in America that they should. He's interested in the stories of the people who work behind the scenes to make us great as a country. The heroes aren't poster-ready, but tired foreigners and beaten down minorities who were sold on a dream and given endless labor. By this regard, Bahrani's latest film, At Any Price, with the likes of Heather Graham, Dennis Quaid, and Zac Efron, comes as something of a surprise.
It shouldn't have, and when it ends we have found ourselves at the end of another collection of dreamers who have had their wishes usurped. For every Mud in the world, there's a family like the Whipples. They're a family that can barely keep the venom away, stewing slowly in the same plots of land for generations, convincing themselves that they're doing the right thing. When wounds form in these areas they don't go away.
You get that venomous sense throughout the introduction to the Whipples in their home videos at the beginning of the film. The stock is just a bit too harsh, too many lines fray the edges, and the smiles much too sharp. It has the look of a home movie taken out and watched so many times that you forget what hope was carried in all of those faces, and it's hard to say who carries the brunt of the burden. When the lines have cleared and we've joined Henry (Quaid) it's clear who spreads the poison in the Whipple family.
In a scene that's as clear and to the point as anything I've seen this year, Henry drags his reluctant son Dean (Efron) to the funeral of a local landowner that he's barely spoken to. He hopes to buy the dead man's land so that the Whipple family farm can continue expanding. The reception is as warm as you'd expect, but Henry's instincts as a buyer speaks excellently of Bahrani's instincts as a storyteller. All Henry is doing is what's needed to survive, and Bahrani makes sure we see the intent on Henry's face. It's excellent he did, because Quaid puts in a career-high performance here.
Watching Quaid in At Any Price is like taking a detour along your boring commute and getting lost among wonderful houses you never knew were hiding. Quaid has been good before, but I've mostly enjoyed him as a performer who hits great heights when he's asked to take it just a little over-the-top with his cheesiness (like in American Dreamz). But here there's an edge that is used with extreme lethality the entire time. This is a man who embraced "bigger is better" business branding and will be damned if he'll let his family farm get swept up by anyone else. The sharpness of his eyes and direct way of speaking cut to a deep survival instinct that he's honed over the years, one that's poisoning his family without him realizing it.
Bahrani personifies Henry's venom throughout the film. Once he's established so clearly what Henry is willing to do we see just how much his methods are drowning everyone. Their life-sustaining corn starts to invade like any other weed, and what escape his son, Dean, has in racing is overpowered by noise and fear. The greatest image comes when Dean, broken after he realizes he's not the man he wants to be, takes his father's lover and almost drowns in a sea of his dad's other hidden sins. Nothing wants to stay buried, and all of Henry's failures find a way to mingle with one another.
Watching Efron here shows that he is capable of pulling off the transition to a great actor one day. He still hasn't figured a way to make his scenes his own, but I can't hold that against him too much considering the heavy lifting that Quaid is doing. As the Whipple Matriarch Kim Dickens doesn't have that many scenes, but is able to quietly express how she's kept the family together for so long. The only person not well served by the story is Heather Graham, who is very good, but starts as a sketch for an interesting take on someone making due in a dying town, and then fades off once the story is done with her.
Success is measured in many ways. Sometimes the best means of triumph is one where you realize the victory that was in place all along. Have the Whipples won at the end of At Any Price? The more accurate question would be, who did they sacrifice to get there? Bahrani understands the struggle that barely hides below the surface of America, the one that no smile can contain.
Screenplay written and directed by Ramin Bahrani.
Starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron.