Sony // 2013 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 21st, 2013
How far will you go to chase a dream?
"Am I a happy man? How can I not be?"
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid, Great Balls of Fire) is an Iowa farmer and GMO seed salesman. He proudly tells everyone he meets that he's the top salesman in seven nearby counties, but lately his success is being threatened by his powerful rival Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown, Carnivale). Henry wants nothing more than to get his son Dean (Zac Efron, The Paperboy) invested in the family business, but Dean has ambitions of becoming a professional race car driver. In an attempt to deal with the current crisis, Henry finds himself taking desperate measures in order to boost his sales numbers. Meanwhile, Dean attempts to determine how he's going to raise the money he needs to participate in the big race that could ultimately be his ticket to a better life.
It took me a while to figure out what on earth At Any Price was doing. It's the latest film from talented indie director Ramin Bahrani, whose previous works include Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. All of those films offer nuanced examinations of immigrants living in America; they're naturalistic movies that star little-known newcomers. At Any Price, on the other hand, didn't feel particularly naturalistic at all: the dialogue is stylized and showy, the actors are famous and the performances are almost theatrical. Had Bahrani simply lost his touch? But at a certain point, it dawned on me that what I was witnessing was a classic Hollywood melodrama, more Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller than John Cassavetes.
While an extraordinarily powerful film, it's easy to see why At Any Price received mixed critical reaction. Not only does its tone take a while to adjust to, but it sets the audience up to expect one kind of movie and then delivers a much different one. Based on the film's opening act, you might be expecting a cinematic sermon on assorted GMO controversies fused with an inspirational drama about a hotshot driver working his way to the big leagues. Nope. The movie is deeper and richer than that, a journey into a the haunted soul of a complicated man and an examination of just how much damage the ethos of "victory at all costs" can do to a person. At a certain point, the movie starts hitting pretty hard and refuses to let up until the credits roll.
Dennis Quaid is a gifted actor, but he's often wasted in forgettable films. At Any Price grants him one of the best roles of his career: a Willy Lohman-style figure who's all forced grins, cornball slogans and false confidence. Initially, the film seems to position Efron (turning in a stellar James Dean impression -- heck, the character is even named "Dean") as the conflicted protagonist while depicting Quaid as an overbearing jerk (the film opens with a scene featuring Henry angrily demanding than Dean help him present a sales pitch to a grieving family during a vulnerable moment). However, as the film proceeds, we begin to realize that it's Henry, not Dean, who forms this fable's troubled soul. By no means is Henry a good man, but he is genuinely troubled by the moral compromises he's forced to make over the course of the film, and Quaid plays his anguish in heartbreakingly effective fashion.
At Any Price also captures a dilemma that many face in the modern world -- an "expand or die" mentality that suggests that if you aren't growing, you're failing. There's no room for people who simply want to make ends meet or maintain the status quo; there's an overwhelming amount of pressure to be bigger, better and stronger. Bahrani persuasively argues that this is the sort of mentality that causes otherwise good people to betray their friends and neighbors. Yes, he focuses exclusively on the Iowa farming community, but it serves as an effective microcosm of the nation as a whole. In present-day America, being a simple family man and leading a simple life is increasingly less and less of a viable option.
At Any Price (Blu-ray) receives a strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that really accentuates the film's attractive rural setting. Detail is terrific throughout, depth is impressive and flesh tones look warm and natural. There is a distracting bit of motion judder during a couple of fast panning shots, but otherwise it's a top-notch transfer. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track gets the job done nicely, blending Dickon Hinchcliffe's folksy score with the dialogue quite effectively. The racing scenes provide the biggest kick from an audio perspective, really giving the rear speakers a workout. Supplements include a commentary with Bahrani and Quaid, a 14-minute Q&A (recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival) and some brief rehearsal footage clips.
The small subplot featuring Heather Graham (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) as a woman Quaid has an extramarital affair with never really comes to any sort of satisfactory conclusion. While the movie makes a point of not tying up certain loose ends in a number of areas, this is the only one that feels like it should have been fleshed out a little more.
At Any Price is certainly a change-of-pace for Bahrani, and its melodramatic brand of storytelling may not work for everyone. Nonetheless, I found it an extraordinarily powerful film, one that I haven't been able to stop thinking about in the days since I've seen it. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Rehearsal Footage
* Digital Copy
* UltraViolet Download