‘At Any Price’ is rich with complexities

Film’s family saga is a heartbreaking story about survival and moral complexity in the shadows of an American Dream

“At Any Price” is a family drama, a community drama, set in the American Heartland — a pertinent film about fate and morality and survival and denial set against the myth of the American Dream. Think Shakespeare, in the cornfields. A Greek tragedy, set in corn country. This is the essence of the latest film from acclaimed American director Ramin Bahrani.

What’s it about? A farmer: a clean-cut, all-smiles guy with the unassuming name of Henry Whipple, played by Dennis Quaid. Yet Whipple’s life, it turns out, isn’t so much about planting and sowing and harvesting. It’s about competition. It’s about pushing others out of the way for the sake of a dream. It’s about the moral choices made, just to survive, to stay ahead, in an age of corporate agriculture.

“Expand or die”: This is guiding truth of Mr. Whipple’s life. And as it is in farm country — where consolidated interests rule, and little guys get run over — so it is beyond the mythic heartland. Whipple, a family farmer, desperately wants to pass something down to his two sons. Bahrani’s film asks: What, exactly, is being “passed on” in America? And: What is the price of that pursuit?

Bahrani, 38, has become a major player in American cinema in recent years on the strength of three exquisite independent films: “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo.” The critic Roger Ebert went so far as dub him “director of the decade” a couple of years ago.

Thus, “At Any Price” is a threshold movie. It’s Bahrani’s first “big budget” film. It’s his first wide-screen film. It’s the first Bahrani film to use established stars — Dennis Quaid, and Zac Efron (as Mr. Whipple’s rebellious son, who seems intent to reject the father’s path in this world). It’s also the first to focus on characters and a storyline specific to white America.

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Bahrani’s previous films accentuated night, darkness. His practice of filming at night lent an air of poignant mystery to his movies. When light happens, it really stands out. “At Any Price,” in contrast, is shot in the brilliant light of day. Bahrani fans will also notice there’s more character backstory (and thus less mystery) in this film — deftly presented, over the opening credits.

“At Any Price” is a noisier, more jolting movie than Bahrani’s previous works, but only because the notion of muscle and manipulation and latent anger is essential to the idea of the film. Quaid is terrific. His posture, the hang of his face, tell truths about Whipple and his world that no words can convey.

At its heart, “At Any Price” is a significant film about America, our times, and the notion of self-examination. Through the figurative lens, it examines nationalism, collateral damage, the urge to impose will — and build a myth — based on size and slogan and force. In one powerful scene, Bahrani films his characters singing “The Star Spangled Banner” before an auto race — the camera lingering on each face — flags rippling and muscle cars roaring in the foreground.

What, exactly, is being “passed on” in America? And: What is the price of that pursuit?

Rating: R, for sexuality, violence, language. Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Theater: Arbor.

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