' ' Cinema Romantico: At Any Price

Sunday, May 05, 2013

At Any Price

Iowa cornfields can have so many connotations on the movie screen. They can represent romance and mysticism, such as in "Field of Dreams" where the ghost of disgraced baseball titan Shoeless Joe Jackson emerges from the stalks to find a place to play. They can symbolize the great unknown, such as in "Sugar" when a baseball player from the Dominican Republic is discomforted by the waves of maize. Or they can symbolize the crushing responsibility of family legacy, as they do in director Ramin Bahrani’s newest film "At Any Price."

Bahrani’s previous films, such as the marvelous "Goodbye Solo", have been notable for their minimalism, whereas "At Any Price" deliberately ramps up the style. Its setting and subjects are modern day but it often feels like a throwback, so much that there are times when Zac Efron, donning the white undershirt in the summer humidity, (un?)intentionally resembles a young Marlon Brando. The film is overstuffed with ideas – some of which, like Efron’s characters escapades as a stock car driver, seem in too big a rush to advance the plot – and, yet, it never quite comes across unwieldy or too busy for its own good. So, too, is it aided in the end by an impressive desire to stick to its guns and not conform to our expectations requiring a twist we will not mention. The title "At Any Price" is genuinely earned.

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), outfitted in a precise bit of costume design with his cellphone belt clip and the practical short-sleeve button-downs, is in charge of a multi-acre southern Iowa farm passed down to him by his gruff father (Red West) and which he hopes, in turn, to pass to one of his sons. The oldest and, we sense, most loved, Grant, however, has long since fled, sending postcards from the far reaches of South America. The younger Dean (Efron) wants to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and get out of dodge in his racing car, which he drives between duties on the farm to local acclaim.

The problems of Henry, though, cut much deeper than the typical father/son friction. He is caught up in the rural hostilities of modern day agribusiness, a seed selling struggle with rival Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) in which he bends the rules and the dwindling supply of his corn-growing land. The latter is demonstrated in a tough to take opening scene when he hauls Dean to a funeral solely to flash his business card to the bereaved to try and snare the deceased’s precious fields. Perhaps the weight of such stress leads to his strange dalliance with Meredith (Heather Graham), many years his junior, the requisite small town beauty who never left because to leave would have left her ordinary.

Henry’s wife Irene (Kim Dickens, a performance of subtle power) is not oblivious, though, as she makes clear. So, why does she remain at her philandering husband’s side? Perhaps to be the rock for Dean that her husband is not, perhaps for reasons I will allow the viewer to discover on his/her own.

The centerpiece of the film, truly, is Quaid’s performance, over-annunciating and imparting perceived wisdom, he plays a man crumbling, emotionally and fiscally, but masking it with forced small talk and aw-shucks manners. The character takes on the air of that clich├ęd down home Iowa cheer and adherence to so-called Midwestern values to skewer it, to illustrate a man bound to the future specifically because of the past. His moral compass is wayward and even as we wonder whether he could survive if it wasn’t, Quaid never makes apologies. This is of the earth bitterness.

"At Any Price" is partially undone by a late game development. Thematically it feels just right and brings the film’s ultimate point home with a hammer, but narratively it suffers from a lackluster transition to it – a problem, honestly, that hampers the entire plight of Dean. Still, the film does not leave you wanting for a lack of meaning.

There is one character I have purposely refrained from discussing until now. She is Cadence (Maika Monroe), Dean’s younger girlfriend who spends most of her time with his family since her dad’s in jail and her mom “makes meth in Jefferson.” I openly confess my affection for her is intertwined with my being a native Iowan, but no character at a film thus far in 2013 has moved me more. At first her character seems on the cusp of factoring directly into the proceedings, only to eventually have the plot box her out and move her to the side. Except, not really. Everyone else here is resigned to their fate even as a few make a show of battling against it. All except for Cadence. The unseen Grant is running away. She, on the other hand, is taking a stand. She gets out.

I hope she remembers where she came from. I also hope she never goes back.

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