DENNIS QUAID ZAC EFRON MAIKA MONROE KIM DICKENS HEATHER GRAHAM
AT ANY PRICE
I didn’t believe writer/director Ramin Bahrani when he told me that this was a much darker role for superstar Zac Efron (The Lucky One, The Paperboy) and Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven, Soul Surfer). The film is set up as a family drama where a generational family farmer wants nothing more than his sons to take over after he is gone. However, At Any Price pushes the boundaries of what the audience is willing to tolerate this family getting away with, and the message of the film never seems to produce any repercussions. “Why are my own children trying to sabotage me?”, he asks, unaware that poor parenting skills have and continue to lead to the moral demise of the family.
Whipple and Sons have been farming in Southern Iowa for generations; now headed by Henry (Quaid), who boasts of his leading majority in 17 counties, he wants to pass the legacy to his eldest, who has left Iowa to explore the world. Henry’s younger son Dean (Efron) is the spitting image of his father, but doesn’t want anything to do with the business; instead, he races cars. “I put myself in these cars so I don’t have to talk to you," he says. Some illegal activity Henry has been doing has been discovered and he is being investigated, not to mention cheating on his wife (Dickens) with the local girl everyone seems to visit. Although they all seem to despise each other, Henry and Dean still protect one another even when it means ruining others.
While this role is something very dark for Efron, he is still playing the hunk as he has in every film since he graduated from High School Musical to film. Quaid is actually cast here quite perfectly as a sleazy farming version of a business shark (i.e. the type Nicholas Cage usually plays). It’s the inner conflict that Henry is tormented with that provides Quaid quite a few good scenes, making him better than he has been in a while. These characters are so ruthless, however, that there is only one person the audience can sympathize with, and that’s Dean’s girlfriend (Monroe), who comes from a terrible family but has the best moral compass.
Bahrani’s view of women as a whole in the film is a bit twisted; they are either whores or the women who take up for their men even when they know they are wrong. At Any Price does get a pretty interesting and detailed look at big and small farming in America and the vicious competitiveness between the two. The film seems to want to explore ruthlessness, but it does so in a way that seems to praise the behavior of this family. I am not sure what audiences or even I am supposed to take away from this except that to win in life you have to destroy those around you.
Final Thought – One of the darkest films at SXSW 2013.
By: Dustin Chase
Dr. Donna Copeland’s
I am not sure what the intended message is in At any Price. Is it that ethical values have become outdated along with old-time farming? But if that were the case, I would think that consequences for bad—really bad—behavior would ensue. But except for a few pangs of guilt, the characters can do whatever they please at no price. Much of the film has testosterone-controlled males competing aggressively and fist fighting with one another. The women provide some calming influence—at least two of them do; another one fans the fire. Not surprisingly, no one seems to know how to deal with frustration and loss, except maybe for Cadence (Maika Monroe), who sees the writing on the wall and begins a fast exit. It is an odd film where the most sensible, grounded character is a teenage girl. The lead wife/mother in the story, Irene (Kim Dickens) provides some support, but even she does not actively encourage her husband and son to do the right thing when the going gets tough.
Perhaps the film is promoting someone’s version of family values, which is that one defends a family member right or wrong. In the most egregious situation in the film, the Dennis Quaid character has an opportunity to guide his son Dean (Zac Efron) into doing the right thing after Dean has impulsively made a mistake. But, then, nowhere along the way has the adolescent been guided toward responsible behavior in the interest of others. For instance, after he makes one aggressive error, his father praises him and surprises him with a new car (reinforcing further aggression, of course).
Although the story line is very poor, the acting is very skilled. Dennis Quaid, for instance, comes across as a really torn man who at first has little insight beneath his bluster. Quaid portrays quite visibly the agony Henry is experiencing. It is too bad Kim Dickens as his wife does not have a more active role in neutralizing some of the aggression in her men. She and her character show sparks of spirit at times, but her role is really a passive one. I particularly liked Maika Monroe as Cadence, who can listen to reason, use her head, and assert herself in a pleasing, productive way—and have fun at it to boot. Her handling of a major disappointment is mature beyond her years, for the most part, but she does use opportunities to vent her feelings toward those who want to disregard her. Lo and behold! She is the one character who uses her words.
I am puzzled about Ramin Bahrani, one of the co-writers and the director of the film. Based on interviews of him, the film does not seem to mesh with his personal values at all. But, because of the poor treatment of moral and behavioral issues, I am giving this film a D.