Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price (2012) has one of those bland three-word titles which bodes no good, yet the results are intriguing if uneven. The Whipples are a family of farmers but the industry has changed and competition is so fierce that the risk of failure looms close despite their obvious prosperity. Farmers sit in GPS-guided, spaceship-esque tractors, checking corn prices on their Blackberries. Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple – a brilliantly realised character – there with a firm handshake, a thick hide and an unwavering grin, even if the ‘there’ is the funeral of a farmer whose land he wishes to buy up.
Henry is a shark, pitiless to the smaller farmer, but only a medium-sized shark all the same. Jim Johnson (played by one of the best character actors going, Clancy Brown) is a larger shark, a competitor who is gobbling up land. And the OGM seed company they both represent, Liberty, is investigating the illegal cleaning and reselling their seeds. If Henry is found guilty, he’d lose everything. In the meantime, one of the Whipples’ two sons, Grant, is off climbing a mountain in the Andes and keeps putting off his long-awaited return: the red carpet is rolled out, only to be rolled up again. Dean (Zac Efron), is a stock car-racing hot-head, who likes nothing better than drinking and hanging out with his teenage girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe), with little or no interest in the family business. Add to the mix local good-time gal Meredith Crown (Heather Graham), who is having an affair with Henry, before turning her attention to the younger Whipple.
There are many things to like about At Any Price: the race scenes are excitingly done, there’s a superb scene of the singing of the US national anthem that precedes it, and Quaid barnstorms as the pater familias whose bonhomie is tested to breaking point. However, the rising temperature never really ignites. There’s conflicts aplenty – between Henry and Dean, Henry and his own father and Henry and his long-suffering wife (Kim Dickens) – but things simmer without ever quite coming to the boil. Some subplots are unresolved, some seem irrelevant. Sadly, Dean’s racing career – one of the most dynamic strands of the storyline – ultimately peters out. The performances found within At Any Price range from great (Quaid) to okay (Efron), but the fault lies not with the actors. Bahrani’s script sets everything up, but frustratingly doesn’t carry it through. This is East of Eden and Hud territory, but just as backbreaking work has been replaced by sitting in an ergonomic chair in an air-conditioned tractor, so the emotional conflicts fail to ignite.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty