The robust creativity of Dennis Quaid’s performance in “At Any Price” is one of the screen-acting marvels of 2013 and will stand among the best at year’s end. As a farmer and seed salesman struggling to stay ahead of the competition, Quaid is a mix of “Death of a Salesman” and comic opera.
Bigger and more revealing than naturalism, his performance has the expressionistic swagger of a Thomas Hart Benton painting and is a perfect match for the film’s soul and for the landscape’s grandeur.
The quiet, discomfiting opening scene sets the tone. Henry (Quaid) is sitting in a car with his sullen, resentful son (Zac Efron), waiting to descend on mourners at a funeral. Suddenly, it’s showtime! At the conclusion of the graveside service, Henry goes up to the grieving widow and offers to buy her late husband’s 200 acres. He is like a vulture, but he is in a cut-throat business where it’s just understood: Get big or get gone.
Henry isn’t just doing a job. He is trying to live a philosophy. He has bought into an ethic that says that neighborliness, friendliness, popularity, attentiveness to customers and boundless, baseless optimism are the keys to success and happiness, and so he is always acting, always on, always in the midst of an unending campaign. He is a phony, but his phoniness is so deep it’s real. Nothing less than a tragedy could put this man in contact with his authentic self.
Of course, this is the American thing: Work hard, harder, hardest, act like a winner and you will be a winner.
This is a time-honored way of looking at the American dream. But director Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, wed this concept to some modern and diligently researched details about farming as practiced today.
As the movie shows, the American heartland is increasingly coming under the thumb of agribusinesses pushing genetically farmed seeds. These seeds are patented, and if a farmer dares to reuse or resell the seeds, he is violating a patent and can be sued and destroyed.
The crisis of “At Any Price” is that Henry finds himself under investigation for patent infringement.
This comes at the same time that his marriage is under strain and he is losing all control of his son, who has no interest in farming.
The son is in the grip of another American dream: to become a NASCAR driver.
As you watch “At Any Price,” notice how the story is always pushing forward, rendering complex characters.
Notice also the skill and detail with which Efron finds a way to play a young man with very little going for him, who resents his father’s spiritual emptiness and yet, though different style, is really a chip off the old block.
This is good, solid story with a point and passion, and it leaves audiences with the sense of having encountered a whole world.
It has that Shakespearean quality of being both broad and particular, and it’s the first really important film to come along this year.