At Any Price is one of those films where the pieces just never come together. While there is one underlying plot that runs throughout the film, there are story elements that seem foreign, as though they belong to another movie. It’s clear that director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani wants to tell a powerful tale of a farmer who will do anything to survive in his business, but if that’s what he really wanted to do, he sure had a funny way of going about it. In a sense, it’s as though he got a little too distracted on the way, turning his powerful tale into an unfocused, random grouping of scenes that will have you scratching your head by the time it’s over.
The film’s main focus is on Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a farmer who has a highly-successful farm in Iowa. One of his sons, Grant (Patrick W. Stevens), leaves home to play football for Iowa State, while his other son, Dean (Zac Efron), has dreams of escaping the farm and becoming a professional NASCAR driver. Henry is a businessman without scruples, determined to keep his place as the number one seed-seller in seven counties, with hope that Dean will eventually take over the farm one day. However, Dean has made it clear that that’s not something he’s looking to do. To make matters worse, Henry is blind-sided by a sudden investigation into his crops that could ruin everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.
What’s kind of sad about At Any Price is that the main story could have worked fairly well had the focus remained there and if the third act had been re-written to be a bit more realistic. Instead, we get a random sideplot about Henry’s son wanting to be a professional racer that ends up being more distracting than helpful. Why NASCAR racing? Well, I suppose they wanted to make it as “country” as possible, just so you don’t get the wrong idea about where this is and who these characters are.
Then there’s the constant mentioning of Henry’s older son, who randomly goes off to Argentina to climb a mountain. What this ends up having to do with anything is never made clear, so you’re merely left to ponder it ever time it’s brought up. You also get some heavily undeveloped plotlines involving Henry’s wife and a family friend that he starts to train in the seed business, but these end up going nowhere and are once again distracting to the main plot.
Even with all of these issues, the film was doing a decent job going into its third act, but this is where things really begin to fly off the rails. The character of Dean already had had a few questionable character motivations that are never explained, so it comes as no surprise that this continued right into the final section of the film. One action in particular shifts the momentum of the story, but it’s so unbelievable that you may give up on it right then and there.
Looking back over the whole film, it becomes clear that Dean was one of its biggest troubles, and strangely enough, I don’t mean because of Zac Efron. The character is so oddly written that we never end up understanding who he is or why he does what he does. We know he wants to escape the farm to try and start a different life for himself, but his actions don’t make much sense in this regard. One second he wants to be a NASCAR driver, then the film suddenly shifts away from that. As to the reason, well, as I said, you’re left scratching your head.
This makes you yearn for the film to continue focusing on Henry, who is by far the more interesting character. At the very least, we understand him and why he does what he does. On top of that, Quaid gives a rather interesting performance. Much of the role has to do with Henry being a master manipulator (you don’t get to be number one in seven counties without such skill) and how he’s able to talk his way into higher sales. That’s the side of his performance that works. The side that comes off as somewhat unintentionally amusing is when he tries to give a deeply troubled or surprised reaction to something. The expression he makes is just silly and kind of takes you out of the moment. However, he does pull off the important part of the role very well.
What At Any Price really needed was another few drafts in order to develop the characters better, as well as a third act that didn’t come off as completely random. Again, we can tell what Bahrani wants to do with this story, but it becomes quite irksome when he can’t concentrate on the important story elements, getting distracted by the sideplots that don’t get anywhere or add anything to the overall narrative. As I find myself mentioning over and over again, focus is key. As a filmmaker, Bahrani should learn not to bite off more than he can chew, and instead, let the main story shine so that he can have the emotional, personal family drama that he wanted all along.
The film itself is presented in a 2.35:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that has no issues as far as I can see. The picture is sharp, clear, and is as good a quality as you could possibly hope for. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio likewise has no problems to speak of. It’s a small film that doesn’t have a lot of big noises, and yet everything comes through loud and clear. Nothing out of the ordinary to report in either of these departments.
Special features on the disc include the following:
- Commentary with Ramin Bahrani and Dennis Quaid
- Toronto International Film Festival Q&A
- Rehearsal Footage
Starting off with the commentary, the bulk of the talk seemed to concentrate on the two saying how great each of the actors were as they popped up on screen. They do get to talking about the film a little, but it’s nothing that’s particularly riveting. The Q&A is pretty standard and doesn’t really offer much in the way of learning about the film, especially with questions that primarily focus on their favorite scenes or which scene was the most difficult. Finally, we have some pretty pointless rehearsal footage that features the crew filling in for the actors as they block the scenes. Overall, these special features are not really worth the time to watch (or listen to).
Unfortunately, this is just not a recommendable release given the state of the film and the lack of in-depth special features. I would have liked to see more of how Bahrani went about making the film, especially regarding the research he did by living with farmers for six months, but this is all he tells us about it. How did he even come up with this idea in the first place? There’s a really interesting story at the heart of At Any Price, I just wish Bahrani had been able to get to it. A little more digging (a few more re-writes) and he may have had something worthwhile, instead of something that gets drowned in distractions.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.