With Embracing the Melodrama coming to a close (only two more reviews to go, including this one!), I want to take this opportunity to tell you about a good film from last year that didn’t get quite as much attention as it may have deserved. The Iowa-set At Any Price is a look at greed, family secrets, and even murder in rural America. It’s not a perfect film but it features a perfect lead performance from Dennis Quaid and it’s worth taking a chance on.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who also works as a sales representative for the Liberty Seed Company. Henry sells genetically modified seeds and one thing that this film gets absolutely right is just how cut-throat the seed business truly is in the heartland. Henry is very proud to be the top seed salesman in the county, with only Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) coming close to matching him. The film’s best scenes are the ones that follow Henry as he travels along his route, selling seeds, giving away candy bars, and always flashing his wide grin. It’s only as the film progresses that we start to notice how desperate that grin really is. Henry, we soon realize, is motivated mainly by greed and fear. He’s the type of farmer who will go to a stranger’s funeral just to try to buy the deceased’s land. Henry is also the type of guy who is willing to cut ethical corners to sell seeds as well. As far as Henry is concerned, he’s only doing what he has to do to make sure that he has a successful business to pass on to his family.
Henry is all about his family and, while that may be his redemption, it’s also his family’s curse because Henry is something of a control freak. Henry’s loyal wife (Kim Dickens) turns a blind eye to Henry’s mistress (Heather Graham). Meanwhile, his oldest son has fled Iowa and moved down to South America. Henry’s remaining son, Dean (Zac Efron), is more interested in pursuing a career in NASCAR than on the family farm. Eventually, as the result of a shocking and almost random act of violence, Dean is forced to pick his future.
With both Neighbors and That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron has been reinventing himself as a skilled comedic actor. Before that, however, he appeared in a series of movies that were meant to show his dramatic range, films like The Paperboy, Parkland, and this one. These films ranged in quality from terrible to good but, in all of them, Zac Efron felt miscast. Efron is the weak link in At Any Price. Dean is supposed to be a character driven by both anger and a need to win (at any price — we have a title!) but when we look at Efron’s pretty blue eyes, we’re left with the impression that there’s not much going on behind them.
Far more effective is Dennis Quaid. Quaid is so likable in the role that it takes a while to realize that Henry is essentially a monster. And yet, you never totally lose your sympathy for him. He has his own demons, demons that he’s passing down to his son. The power of Quaid’s performance is that you can tell he knows he’s wrong but he just can’t stop himself.
At Any Price is a good farmland melodrama, full of beautiful landscapes and carefully observed details. It’s not a perfect film but it is one worth watching for anyone who is wondering whatever happened to the American dream.