AT ANY PRICE: The Tale of GMO Seed
Not to mention a bad James Dean impression
Ramin Bahrani’s fourth feature At Any Price sees the former indie wunderkind grappling with a Hollywood movie starring Dennis Quaid and everyone’s favorite brooding James-Dean-In-Training Zac Efron. The movie looks into the world of big-stakes Iowa corporate farming and the GMO seed corporations who force farmers to dance to their tune or lose out on their proprietary high-yield corn. At its heart though the film is a father-son relationship story, sort of a glossy attempt at a PTA movie. Sort of.
Henry Whipple (Quaid) has two sons, Dean (Efron) and Grant, as the opening scene gives a quick photo-montage back-story. Henry’s wife (the always dutiful Kim Dickens, Treme, The Wire) serves as the invisible-yet-there mother. We learn quickly that Henry wants Grant to takeover the family farming and seed distribution business since Dean is dead set on becoming a race car driver. In short order we learn that Henry is not much of a stand-up guy as he drags Dean to a funeral to partake in the farming equivalent of ambulance chasing. Henry’s tone-deaf pitch to buy a grieving son’s 200-acre family farm shows him callously leaving a tenant-farmer in the lurch who can’t match the asking price on a farm he’s rented and worked for ten years. Dean, along for this shady transaction, shows contempt for his go-getter old man and only dreams of moving off the dirt tracks to the glory of NASCAR soon.
We next see Henry getting it on with Roller Girl (Heather Graham) in the seed elevator office. We know this is not his wife yet we never do fully figure out who she is other than a desultory liaison for Henry. Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe in the film’s best acting performance, hands down) helps keep him grounded as his dirt-track successes pile up. He wins his last figure-8 dirt race over his rival Brad Johnson who is the son of his father’s seed-sales rival Tom Johnson (Clancy Brown, sadly underutilized here). This youthful rivalry will take a dramatic turn later in the film so one must extrapolate more from the few scenes they have in the movie.
This is one of the biggest problems with At Any Price–its script manages to plop revealing plot points and convenient conflict which the onscreen action doesn’t quite live up to. It picks up threads of conflict – like Henry’s wife calling him out for cheating on her then acting like nothing happened for the whole rest of the film. It’s especially apparent in the father-son’s dynamic as Dean’s brooding and whinging turns into a full-on indictment of Henry as a father and as a man towards the end. Call it Touch-Screenwriting—just click on this app to add some conflict here, click this backstory app here. Another example of the curious script is the importance placed on the missing brother Grant. We are led to believe very early in the film he’s coming home, the folks literally get out a red carpet for him to walk into the farm and the 200-acre farm Henry bought will be for him to get started on. Funny thing is Grant is in Argentina getting ready to climb a mountain. We only hear from him via several postcards that appear at specific plot points along the script. This odd, apostolic tale never manages to stitch together the scenes of Dean’s anger towards his father, instead we are left to assume his absence speaks volumes.
Dean gets his big-shot at that asphalt tracks only to choke in a tense moment of racing. As he leaves the track, a beat-down man before he’s even 20, he casts off his girlfriend while telling off his father too. He spares his silent mother any acrimony since she gave him $15,000 of her own money to enter the race. This spurning from Dean stings Henry but not as much as the seed-cleaning trouble he finds himself in. The GMO seeds that Henry sells are to be replaced every single year, it is contractually illegal to reuse the seeds since they are patented property of the seed corps. Dean’s has been ratted out and an investigation into his seed sales practices ensues.
The film takes a dark turn into corn noir which has the only real result of bringing Dean back into the family farm business. Once again an example of the film’s Touch-Screenwriting as nothing at any point in the film would hint at this turn to violence. Dean hits rocks bottom by sleeping with Roller Girl in a corn silo—he never does find out that she was also sleeping with his old man— which is witnessed by his soon to be ex-girlfriend. He then wrecks his racecar and decides to cash in his chips to help his dad with the investigation. He opts for the safety of continuing the family farm for a fourth generation. The film comes to its close with a few threads left dangling and a slightly sinister ending.
The film is considerably better at showing small-town, rural American life as opposed to the pandering, smug Promised Land. It’s haphazard script lets the movie down. Quaid’s performance is decent yet not terribly nuanced enough to hang the whole film on. Efron has now done several adult drama with the only real defining trait being his glassy-eyed teen pout. He shows a few glimpses in the racing scenes yet exudes a Tom Cruise-like awkwardness with all of the females in the film. Kim Dickens and Heather Graham’s characters are terribly one-dimensional and flat which is a shame as neither of the actresses manage to bring anything to their roles outside of being mere appendages to the male roles. The girlfriend is the best character in the film yet sadly she get’s ditched in the middle only to escape the oppressive small-town life for the west coast. Henry’s dad has a few scenes in the film but his character is utterly wasted, which is a shame since the actor was fantastic in Bahrani’s last film Goodbye Solo.
The film does manage some great visuals of massive cornfields and high-tech farm equipment—there’s several scenes of Henry sitting in the cab of a GPS-controlled tractor. The future is here! It does not come close to David Lynch’s visual valentine to Iowan cornfields in the supremely underrated Straight Story. Also, anyone from Iowa would be able to nitpick at several of the film’s geographical errors like counties in the wrong place. The worst sin the film commits is to make Henry a third-generation farmer who acts like he doesn’t really know some of the other farmers, which would never happen in real, small-town Iowa. Everyone knows almost everyone. The fact that the film does draw attention to GMO-seeds and the big corporations behind them is commendable yet the movie withholds any serious critique on it.