When we first meet Henry Whipple, the farmer and seed salesman played by Dennis Quaid in Ramin Bahrani's "At Any Price," he's crashing a funeral with his reluctant son, Dean (Zac Efron), in tow, hoping to take some land off the hands of the dead man's poor, bereaved family. It's not the sort of introduction that inspires much sympathy from the audience and, for the most part, the film never attempts to turn Henry into anything resembling a likeable human being. Still, Quaid is an actor of such charisma that he nearly makes it possible to care about what happens to the man. Nearly.
Henry is a moderately successful salesman for the Liberty seed company, as well as the owner of Whipple Farm, a family business passed down through four generations, and one that he hopes to eventually leave to his sons. The future of the business is in question, however. His eldest son, Grant, has chosen not to return home after graduating from Iowa State, opting instead to climb mountains and explore the world. Meanwhile, Dean is more interested in racing cars and dreams of one day making it to NASCAR. The script never delves too deeply into the family's past, but it's clear that Henry's intense need for more (land, money, respect) has had the effect of driving his sons away from him.
Henry is all but on his own, frantically attempting to hold off Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) and his sons, the most successful salesmen in the state, who are quickly encroaching on Henry's territory. Then Liberty gets tipped off that Henry may have been washing and reselling their genetically modified seeds (which is evidently very much illegal) to other farms in the area, and the company launches an investigation, with the possible result of criminal charges.
There's a Willy Loman-esque desperation to Henry's need to climb the rungs of fortune; he's taken the Liberty company motto, "Expand or Die," to heart. He's more than willing to sell his soul in exchange for growth and prosperity. He does receive some support from the women in his life, including Dean's girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), who discovers she's got a knack for the seed business. This development allows her character to develop beyond the role of simply "the girlfriend," and Monroe is a talented enough actress that Cadence quickly becomes one of the film's most compelling characters. Henry's wife, Irene (Kim Dickens, HBO's "Treme"), has a limited role, but her handful of key scenes prove that she's a real source of strength within the family. Finally, there's also Henry's mistress, Meredith (Heather Graham), but calling her role underwritten would be putting it mildly. She exists as a plot point, only around to provide a source of conflict between Henry and Irene, then later, once she decides to start chasing after the younger Whipple man, between Dean and Cadence.
Quaid is the center of the film, and he turns in a remarkable performance. He makes the bitter, dishonest, and often weasel-like Henry into a fascinating character, even as the script continuously lets him down. Efron is fine, despite not being entirely convincing as a hot-tempered, hard-drinking race-car driver. I give him credit for continuing to shed his Disney movie image by choosing interesting roles, even if he doesn't yet quite have the chops to pull them off.
As the events of the film turn ever darker, I found myself not only uninterested in the Whipples' success, but actively hoping for their downfall. I'm all for movies about people who aren't entirely sympathetic, but I detected more than a hint of disdain from Bahrani for his characters. He seems to be judging them for compromising their integrity, which may be appropriate, but dramatically it isn't very interesting. As the film progressed, it was hard not to imagine him wagging his finger at these characters from behind the camera lens. But the film is always impeccably crafted; the vast, green fields of crops are lovingly and artfully photographed by Director of Photography Michael Simmonds.
Bahrani has designed the film to function as an indictment of the state of agriculture in our country today, and by extension, society as a whole. This aspect of the story is clearly where Bahrani's interest lies, but for some unknown reason his script (Bahrani shares writing credit with Hallie Elizabeth Newton) welds it together with a plot that wouldn't feel out of place in a retro, 50's-style melodrama. He's a director known for gritty, micro-budgeted films with a sharply drawn and precise sense of place: "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop," and "Goodbye Solo." But "At Any Price" marks his first attempt at a "Hollywood" picture with major stars, and it feels as though he didn't trust a more mainstream audience to stick with him without some overblown dramatic pyrotechnics to hold their interest.