There was a time when American farmers in the heartland followed the natural rhythms of the earth and enjoyed the rewards of a simple life with family and friends. They may have toiled long hours with less help but they enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing the results of their hard work. But much of that has changed in this era of big business farming where large corporations are buying up the land, mechanizing much of the work, and using genetically modified seeds and pesticides to increase crop yields. Smaller farms either can't keep up or are forced to use the new technologies. Those who grew up thinking that their lives would be like those of previous generations are finding their dreams shattered in the competitive world of agriculture.
Ramin Bahrani directs this engrossing drama set in the cornfields of southern Iowa. He is known for his humanistic urban stories (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo) which emphasize the struggle to survive in harsh and stressful times. This time out Bahrani , who wrote the screenplay with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, reveals the drastic changes in family farms and touches our hearts with its portrait of a good man who is torn apart in pursuit of his legacy plans for the future.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) runs a family farm and a seed company that he inherited from his feisty father Cliff (Red West), who is always criticizing him for not being successful enough. He's always trying to expand his operation. In a very revealing scene, Henry attends the funeral of a neighbor and approaches the family about buying their land. He plans to give the extra acres to his oldest son as part of his legacy plan for passing on his farm and seed business.
In another scene, he's shocked to discover that his rival in the seed selling business, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), is taking away his customers. Because they sell genetically modified seeds, which are patented and must be purchased anew each season, the business is a major source of his income and how he can keep his own farm going. Henry is envious of Johnson's close bond to his son Brad (Ben Marten). With their combined energy and solidarity, they are stealing his customers.
Henry's eldest son has left home for a stint in the military but instead of coming home, he's gone off climbing mountains in South America. He has no choice but to turn to his other son Dean (Zac Effron) who wants to pursue a career as a NASCAR driver. The father-son tension between them has led Henry into an affair with Meredith (Heather Graham). His hard-working wife Irene (Kim Dickens), who handles the bookkeeping for their business, knows about her husband's adultery and feels the distance growing between them. The only one who seems to be on Henry's side is Cadence (Maika Monroe), Dean's girlfriend, who joins him on some of his sales excursions.
Bahrani draws out top-notch performances from the cast. Dennis Quaid shows great vulnerability when the seed manufacturer investigates his seed-sales operation and it looks like he might lose everything Zac Effron proves again that he is a gifted actor when he shifts gears in the last section of the film and shows his dad that he is a changed young man with a new role in the family.
At Any Price is an engrossing and bittersweet film that takes us inside the world of modern farming. Those who cherish the wide-open spaces of the Midwest will appreciate Michael Simmonds' lovely shots of farms, cornfields, and windmills.
Special features on the DVD include commentary with Ramin Bahrani and Dennis Quaid; Toronto International Film Festival Q&A; rehearsal footage