Ramin Bahrani has become an established name in the film-world for modern throwbacks to European art cinema, particularly neo-realism with works like Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. His newest drama, At Any Price, represents a major departure. In his past filmography a slice-of-life-realism was in script terms created through subtle plotting and characterization, as well as through form with improvisation and non-professional actors. With his newest though, comes a script full of broad strokes and the casting of big-name stars. But is his reach for some kind of classicism grandly successful or a staggering failure? The end result lies somewhere in between.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid, fully playing up that he’s supposed to be a farmer) is attempting to carry on the family’s name as a force in Iowa’s corn business, but the farm is under serious financial strain while facing the rivalry of Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). Henry’s two sons also clearly have aspirations outside of farming, with the oldest having already moved out to see the world and the other Dean (Zac Efron), has dreams of being a NASCAR driver.
The drama essentially boils down to the father/son relationship, as most of their actions are mirrored in some way. Jim Johnson’s son Brad also serves as a rival to Dean, and the same woman, Meredith (Heather Graham) interferes in both their perfectly happy respective relationships. But in the third act it comes down to an irreversible act by one of them, that establishes amongst the American turmoil there will always be a deep love one feels for the other.
This set-up is rich with potential for a classical Hollywood throwback. While it’s still set in contemporary times and attempts to capture the emotions and struggles of now, its setting of America’s heartland as well as themes concerning family, rivalry and the American dream instantly chalk up memories of earnest, emotionally charged dialogue and performances against compositions of livestock-dominated fields. But there lies a conflict between content and execution.
At Any Price basically screams out to be a melodrama, and Bahrani just doesn’t seem interested in that. His mise-en-scene is rather confined, often focusing on faces and every once in awhile giving an arbitrary widescreen composition. There’s a rather unfortunate instance of this in a crowd scene where he lingers on faces of the Iowan citizens as they awkward recite the national anthem, to a point that they’re rendered yokels. Perhaps it’s meant to be honest, but it comes off as condescending.
The lack of an expressive quality is what ultimately sinks the film, making the drama ultimately kind of cheesy. While Bahrani is certainly invested in what these people face (supported by a shockingly earnest plea during his intro for the film), it represents a problem in that ultimately he respects it to much to sensationalize, or rather heighten it. An even ground between minimalist sensibilities and grand drama is never found.