At Any Price is truly a baffling film. At many times I found myself laughing, I found my mouth agape, I buried my head in my hands… And I hardly think that was the filmmaker’s intended audience reaction. It’s almost hard to believe that someone actually wrote this thing, that the film is even for real. This is especially surprising since the film’s writer/director, Ramin Bahrani (who co-scripted with Hallie Elizabeth Newton), has several good indie films under his belt, including Goodbye Solo and Man Push Cart. The film throws logic and caution to the wind, features an insanely campy performance from Dennis Quaid, flip-flops each character’s motivation with abandon, has zero regard for morality and never ceases to have a cheese factor that explodes through the roof.
On the positive end (which is understandably quite narrow), the two race car scenes were shot well, as they were quickly paced and tension-filled. And Zac Efron is always a sight for sore eyes, especially during his two passion-filled sex scenes.
The film is about the Whipple family, led by huckster patriarch, Henry (Quaid). He is of the third generation to take the helm of an Iowa farming empire, and he’s in constant competition with Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) and his clan, especially now that Jim has taken over one of his rival’s counties. Henry and his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) have two sons, college football star Grant (Patrick Stevens), who is his favorite, and race car driving enthusiast Dean (Efron). Henry is pretty obsessed with staying on top in the farming business so he can eventually pass it on to Grant, but the boy decides that farming isn’t for him, per se, and goes to Argentina to climb a mountain instead of coming home.
Henry is a lawbreaker, as it turns out. He cleans GMO seeds for re-use, and someone has tipped off the law. He’s also fooling around on his wife with the town slut, Meredith (Heather Graham). One Whipple isn’t enough for Meredith, as she later gets it on with Dean, cheating on his girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe), in a corn silo. When racing doesn’t go Dean’s way, he randomly decides that he wants in on the farming business. But then he’s is instrumental in something very bad happening, something very bad indeed.
The worst thing here — which is almost hard to pick, honestly — is probably Quaid’s bizarre, over-the-top performance. If you remember him in American Dreamz, where he played a very George W. Bush-like president, it’s kind of like that — but worse, since this is not a satire. It is supposed to be a serious movie. It’s hardly like Quaid is a bad actor — he’s turned in countless excellent performances, especially his Oscar-nominated turn in Far From Heaven. All of the other actors, despite ability, are just so-so here. They really don’t have much to do. I like Efron quite a bit, actually, yet it’s very hard to buy such a Golden Boy in the role of a rebel, shooting out the window of a mechanic’s shop to steal an engine, or being the first to throw a punch.
Speaking of which, another terrible aspect of this film is that acts of wrongdoing have absolutely no consequence. Dean never gets caught for stealing (this town apparently has no police force to speak of). And later there is another, far worse crime that is eventually rewarded instead of condemned. Bahrani really must have checked his morals at the door when making this film. Its conclusion, in this sense, is really awe-inspiring, and for all the wrong reasons.
The faults don’t end there. For one, the characterizations are really inconsistent. Henry suddenly decides to be gung-ho about Dean’s racing, while Dean turns his back on racing after an accident and suddenly becomes gung-ho about farming, fervently so. On the other side of the gender fence, the women in the film all have thankless roles. Irene remains tepid as she discovers Dean’s infidelity and barely has a pulse throughout the film. And poor Graham as Meredith with her sole function in the film being literally “town slut.” Finally, the script hints at some sort of environmentalist angle but never bothers to follow through with it. Oh well, it wouldn’t have made the film any better.
The Upside: The racing scenes were fairly well-shot. Also, Zac Efron sure is pretty!
The Downside: Dennis Quaid’s camp performance, the preponderance of unlikeable characters, the complete lack of comeuppance for wrongdoing, the fact that all female characters are either wet rags or sluts (or some combination thereof), the many 360s in character motivation, and an overall high cheesiness level. And these are just the tips of the iceberg.
On the Side: To this point Bahrani has mainly worked without scripts and without professional actors. This is his first feature working this this level of recognizable acting talent.