By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Rahmin Bahrani may be the greatest living American filmmaker you’ve never heard of (statistically based on his box office grosses and Oscar attention, anyway). He’s demonstrated his masterful, minimalist style and authentically human storytelling abilities with stone cold classics like Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, and Chop Shop. And with At Any Price, he’s finally going Hollywood.
The story follows the Whipples, a multigenerational Iowa farming and seed selling family as the father (Dennis Quaid) deals with losing territory to a rival seed salesman and the disdain of his sons, one who left for college and is in no hurry to come back to the farm and the other (Zac Efron) a dirt-track racer who’s pursuing a NASCAR career. When some sins of the past come home to roost, the family is thrown even further into turmoil.
No, I didn’t stutter. Zac Efron.
With names like Efron aboard, you already know this is a long way from Bahrani’s comfort zone. Some of his familiar elements are there, like his virtuoso use of sound and score (from Dickon Hinchliffe, who’s sneakily assembled quite the resume) and beautiful sun-kissed cinematography that proves a gorgeous match for the American Heartland, apple-pie imagery the story calls for.
However, this is put in service of a much more conventional narrative than we’re used to from him. That’s not all bad, as I very much like what he was going for- with a Shakespearean, sins of the father passing to the sons backbone fleshed out by a corn-fed Godfather storyline. In some ways, this reminded me of the even more ambitious (and more exemplary) The Place Beyond the Pines.
Efron’s no Gosling (or DeHaan) though
The acting is flashier than Bahrani’s usual amateur and no-names casting, and comes off a bit less natural as a result. Efron benefits greatly from Bahrani’s hand, and actually is pretty good, even if he is outshined by his girlfriend (Maika Monroe). The highlight, though, is Quaid, who delivers a career-best turn. He’s on the surface a used-car salesman-type who’s so full of shit his eyes are brown, but as the film progresses the cracks start to show, leading up to a confrontation with Efron in which he realizes what his legacy really is. It’s an incredible score that screams Oscar, and the perfect foundation for the film’s superb finale.
This script simply doesn’t match Bahrani’s style. It basically completely flips his usual minimalist, it’s all about the subtleties approach, resorting to over-explaining character histories and intentions, where before he’d trust his audience to connect the dots. He of all people should know better.
Overall, At Any Price is just… underwhelming. Perhaps Bahrani works best under budget constraints, although I’d love for him to get another Hollywood shot.
An ambitious, well-acted, good-looking film whose many good elements don’t… quite… come all the way together. It’s still absolutely worth your time.
Take a Drink: anytime you see corn, or it is mentioned
Take a Drink: honestly, you should stop there. Fine,
Do a Shot: whenever Quaid says “200 Acres”