“Expand or die.” “Go big or get out.” These two mantras not only describe what motivates the modern-day farmer, they actually speak to the average American’s desire to conquer. They might actually resonate more than Danny Lugo’s mantra from Pain and Gain, “If I feel I deserve it, the universe will serve it.” Pain & Gain is still in theaters, as is Iron Man 3 where Tony Stark tells us in the opening voice over, that we create our own demons. Pay attention to the first five minutes of At Any Price, the groundwork is laid here. Why bring up these two movies in relation to Ramin Bahrani’s latest effort? If those two movies invoke what is distinctly American, At Any Price shows us who it really is. Not larger than life body builders, not billionaire comic book heroes, but one of the most quintessential and overlooked American figures, the farmer.
At Any Price is about Fathers and Sons and the gravity that relationship can take on. An often quoted Biblical saying goes that the children are punished for the sins of the father. There is truth to that, and this movie explores that, but At Any Price shows that it cuts both ways. Sometimes fathers must pay for the indiscretions of their children. Consider the scene in the cornfield toward the end of the second act, Henry staring good and hard at his son, Dean. That look is a “What are we going to do now?” look that a father will give his son in major situations. What a father does after he gives his son that look says more about who he is as a person and a father than anything else. It reveals the character underneath, and Henry Whipple is all out of character.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) comes at you equipped with a smile that stretches broadly across his face. He is a man loaded with clichés and principles that he abandons whenever they no longer fit the situation. He is not above sinking as low as humanly possible to expand his business or protect his family. He might even see himself as a modern-day gunslinger, instead of a gun on his hip, he has a holster with his smart phone on it. Business cards and Butterfingers is how he gets what he wants, and there is neither a time nor a place that isn’t fit for business. He uses funerals to poach business, he re-sells a product that he is legally not allowed to, he cheats on his wife and denies it to her face. Henry is the kind of guy the world doesn’t see as a real threat. You think you see him coming a mile away, but you never realize exactly what he is capable of.
Henry is the third generation Iowa farmer. His Grandfather bought the land, his Father worked it, and now it is his to pass on to his sons, Grant (Patrick W. Stevens) or Dean (Zac Efron). He prefers Grant, the tall, handsome, and strong football star. Dean knows this and minds, but he doesn’t want the farm so he doesn’t fret about it. He wants to get out and become a racecar driver. Farmers, racecar drivers, football stars, this movie is as Midwest as it comes. Martin Scorsese is fond of saying that movies are imbued with the DNA of their time. I would also like to add that they carry with them an archival document of the where they were made, or as Werner Herzog likes to call it, “The voodoo of location.” Beads of sweat roll down the actor’s necks, their damp collar shirts clinging to their back, this is not a movie set constructed to invoke a farm, this is a farm where the movie is set. Much like Rossellini’s early work, the melodrama only heightens the realism.
This is the 21st Century, gone is the romanticism of the farmer and the Midwest. This is a movie about farmers, but you won’t see any of them toiling as the sun slips beneath the horizon. At Any Price shows us how science, business, and technology have changed the farmer from a hard-working individual with dirt under his fingernails, to one who scrolls through market prices on his smart phone while the tractor drives itself via satellite mapping. Only once do we see someone actually in the dirt, Irene Whipple (Kim Dickens), digging potatoes out of a small vegetable garden. Endless rows of corn dominate the horizon, but where are all the workers toiling away, hoeing weeds, watering the crops, fretting the crumbling soil in their hands? Technological advances have obliterated any possible romanticism of man and nature. The Whipples produce a genetically altered corn that is turned into a myriad of products that feed this large nation. This is not a farm, it is a sweatshop, no different from a factory in China churning out iPhones.
There is so much to this movie, it is astounding that its running time is under two hours. There is the grandfather character (Red West) who worked himself as hard as he could so that his father’s work would not be in vain. He wants to leave a legacy for his son and grandsons, so they can experience the same satisfaction that he feels, or wishes he did. He is a quiet man who has been pushed out of his son’s life and resigned himself to spending the last years of his life not upsetting progress. In one of the best scenes, he balks at the idea that times were actually ‘simpler’ back then. Then required work, now requires intelligence. There is the absent older brother, Grant, who might set everything right with his return. At least that is what Henry thinks, biding his time until the day Grant returns from Argentina and claim the land that is destined to be his. Grant chooses to remain in Argentina, climbing mountains and following his passion, far from his father’s control. Because of this, Henry must turn to Dean to take over, and Dean must turn to Henry when he needs him most. They have now entered a symbiotic relationship where they will either prop each other up, or drag each other down. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
Dean has a girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), who is trying her best to be more of a person than her absent parents ever were. She is the only one who is smart enough to realize that the best thing for her to do is get as far away from these toxic people as possible. In typical Midwest-Nice fashion, she does it with a smile. Heather Graham plays a single woman who first seduces Henry and then Dean. She knows what she is doing, so why does she do it? Because she has nothing better to do. Sometimes the simplest answers are the correct answers. Why does Dean give up on a career as a racecar driver? Because he just doesn’t have what it takes. Simple, simple, simple. Bahrani knows that people are lazy, and that most people take the easiest way out of a situation. Willy Loman knew that and killed himself. It was a coward’s way, but it was Willy’s way. I doubt either Henry or Dean Whipple ever read or saw Death of a Salesman, and that’s too bad. It might have helped them avoid a couple of pitfalls.
The performances are outstanding, with Quaid giving the performance of his career. Look at his clothes, baggy, hanging off him in a disheveled, unattractive way. Is it because he has lost so much weight due to stress he is under, or because he can’t quite fill the role he thinks he deserves? Zac Efron has been trying hard to break free of his High School Musical reputation, and this is the movie that might do it. There are moments where Efron could give us the usual, “I don’t want your life!” shriek in his Father’s face, but he doesn’t. He is much calmer and plays it natural, much more dangerous.
It is true that every son grows up wanting to be like his father. This urge dissipates about the time the son realizes that the world is much larger than they thought, and that their Father is not God, but a normal man. The son goes off to follow his own path, and the father looks on. Fathers want their sons to grow up and follow in their footstep, that’s why they have them in the first place. Some let this idea go easier than others. The best Dads let their sons go off and become the men that they want to be. The second best try to coax them to take over and continue the family legacy, but don’t press the issue too hard. The worst, find ways to trap their sons in their position. Think of The Godfather and Don Corleone. He says he didn’t want Michael to take over the family business, but he knew that Michael was a hell of a lot smarter and better than Sonny or Fredo ever could be. Is it possible that Henry knew that the future of his family business lied not with Grant but with Dean? Maybe he didn’t plan it, but he did capitalize on events as they came about. Suddenly that look he gives Dean at the end of the second act means so much more. The last shot, of Henry and Irene dancing at the Customer Appreciation Dance, carries so much more. Not only has Henry gotten away with everything and will not be punished for his transgressions, but he found a way to get everything he’s ever wanted. Looks like Henry found The American Dream. Too bad that there is something missing, you can see it right there in Henry’s eyes, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”