A high-stakes Midwestern, Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” captures the unease of the small businessman in today’s America with quiet confidence.
Dennis Quaid’s performance as Iowa seed salesman Henry Whipple is earnestly physicalized: with each step in his business day, Henry leans in, pulls away, reacts with galvanic immediacy, capturing the daily terror of imminent doom. It’s not precisely “existential,” but it captures the symbolic death of a farmer, of the generations-won symbol of the family farm, in a tradition handed down by Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Quaid embosses each moment with a surfeit of shit-eating grins, his Henry knowing he is as near to failure and ruin as any subsistence farmer in India.
Henry is a middleman for a conglomerate, “Liberty Seed,” that’s patented life itself, and that voraciously pursues and prosecutes anyone who cleans, stores or reuses the GMO seeds manufactured and sold under their brand names. (In a recent conversation, Bahrani told me that Monsanto had been in touch with the production about whether any of their material had crept into the frame). There’s investigative journalism and foodie literature and photography and Chicago-style snout-to-tail cooking, but the subject of industrial farming seems almost taboo in film and fiction. Henry’s dilemma, partly brought on by his own desperation, illustrates the stakes. Bahrani’s research included extensive time spent researching in Iowa corn country with co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton as well as extensive conversations with the writer Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”).
But Henry is also middle-age crisis writ large. “At Any Price” arranges more rich tendrils than a mere “issue” film. He fools himself that his wife, Irene (Kim Dickens) is unaware of his affair with co-worker Meredith (Heather Graham) and, indeed, that the entire small town would be unaware of their “secret.” Henry’s youngest son, Dean (Zac Efron) rebels in his own way, racing cars but also driving for miles to smaller Iowa towns with his friends and girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) to commit petty, impulsive crimes. Each actor deftly sketches the arcs and triangles that spark from the many intertwined relationships. Henry’s awe at young Cadence’s resourcefulness at selling to his disinterested customers has a deeper current: she’s yet the youngest generation of corn-silk blonde women in his life, as blonde as the tassels atop the rows and rows of corn.
Henry’s mussed, imperfect hair—Quaid says he went for the cheapest local cut possible and went without makeup—is another keen indicator of how lost he is. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Henry goes beyond his demonstrated ability to downshift from a verbal beat-down by a rival salesman (Clancy Brown) to an inability to register the stakes at the scene of a crime, just perceptibly shrinking against the green heights of corn stalks beneath the slow, incessant locust whir of wind towers just above. Bahrani and Quaid find the image, the precise physicalization of all confidence draining from a man. Another bravura moment finds Dean in a liaison with Meredith inside a seed tower beside a pyramid of GMO seeds. (“My friend Werner Herzog called it a lunar landscape,” Bahrani laughed when I described his scene back to him.) “At Any Price” is also a very sexually charged, frustrated film; it’s very fucky, its characters surrounded by all this foiled fertility.
The many physical details, while concrete, accumulate with a quiet strangeness. Bahrani has advanced from the chunky neo-neorealism of “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop” to something that resembles 1970s Robert Altman, with much less sarcasm. There are a couple of scenes that crosscut the various characters, including the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” before a car race that draw effectively on the vocabulary of the great “I’m Easy” musical number in “Nashville,” where three women all mistake themselves for the subject of a song sung by Keith Carradine.
Bahrani and Newton’s dialogue offers another rich pleasure, arraying several generations of colloquial and vernacular speech. Cadence, neatly enough, speaks like this: “Why are you acting like a cyborg assassin all of a sudden,” to Dean after a crime, and after the stolen object’s installed, “I like the sound of your car with its new part.” Hominess is indicated by “I’ve got coffee in the microwave, it’s getting cold.” And in 2013, what salesman is going to get away with “You in the mood for a Butterfinger?” to start a fraught conversation with a tetchety customer? It’s all part of the larger hum, including sound design that teems with bugs and bees and birds. “While it was fun, I had fun, y’know,” comes from the most unlikely character, another liltingly cadenced line delivery. The quiet grace extends as well to the gratifying ending, with the perhaps-ironic invocation, “It’s gonna be a great harvest.”
“At Any Price” opens Friday at Landmark Century, Evanston Cinearts and Northbrook Court.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.