At Any Price is a gloomy parable that speaks to the woes of life in small town America. Director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani’s delivers a picturesque rendering of golden-glimmering wheat fields and comforts of country living. Yet, there is a general air of melancholy that floats through this film in which stories of lust, teenage angst and midlife crisis become implausibly intermittent.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is a struggling businessman who will stop at nothing to continue his family’s farming legacy. Henry’s youngest son Denis (Zac Efron) rebels against taking on family business to instead chase his dream of becoming a NASCAR driver. Denis’ cocky attitude eventually becomes confronted with evidence of both he and his father’s wrong doings.
Constantly wearing an ear to ear grin, Henry is easily the most intriguing character with his Jekyll and Hyde allure: we adore him as a family man but we are simultaneously repulsed by Henry’s adulterous, scum-bag behaviour. This is dichotomy is one of the most endearing aspects of At Any Price initial schema. For a time it’s us who sit alongside Denis, similarly naïve to the low down lifestyle that Henry enjoys when hiding from the rays of bright country sunlight only to be illuminated by the neon motel lights that colour his seedy wrong doings.
It’s At Any Prices’ initially unflinching story telling that makes Henry’s family man loyalty and lying lust dichotomy so jarring and so effective. We’re dealing with wheat fields, grain silos and flat lands and it’s instances like the great, winding sequences where Denis and Henry are chasing or are being chased by other men in search of grain-fueled blood money that push this film beyond being a family drama.
Yet, when the focus of the film becomes split between the woes of Henry and Denis’ angsty feelings, it’s the alternation between the increasingly unpredictable acts of both father and son that proves to be tiring and whimsical. The truly disappointing aspect of At Any Price is that the strong and sturdy footing the film started off on, mostly thanks to the incredible hold Bahrani’s takes of Middle American landscape, becomes sullied by its lame plot.
The picturesque beauty that Bihrani captures slowly erodes under the soggy weight a flimsy plot line scripted alongside co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton. Most notably, when Henry’s mistress, an aged and starving for attention ex cheerleader named Meredith (Heather Graham), becomes sexually involved with Denis only to reveal to him that she is sleeping with his father in an off the cuff way, everything goes off the rails.
What was once etched as strange and torrid love triangle that would see father and son living vicariously through the same sordid woman, eventually degrades into a melodramatic ploy filled plot that makes one feel like Bihrani and Newton are desperately trying to pull the wool over your eyes. This could be an ingeniously slow creeping nod to the inescapable notion of predestination and the threat of damnation that small town living poses. But instead, the only thing At Any Price leaves you thinking about or questioning will be the price of the film you just paid for.
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