As Henry Whipple, salesman for Liberty Seeds focused on acquiring more farmland, Dennis Quaid uses his quick grin as a disarming enticement and a weapon, though it seldom masks panicky concern and sly manipulation. He sinks into deeper and deeper trouble, and he knows it. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani said the whole story came down to how far a fourth-generation farm family would go to save themselves and how far a parent would go to save a child. To that end, associations for the title "At Any Price" get teased out as plot elements progress.
Savvy wife Irene correctly assesses the financial and personal peril the family faces, and she confronts it with intelligence and calm reserve in one of the best, though supporting, women's roles in quite a while. Similarly, the complexity of current rural life, a life too often idealized, has a complexity seldom granted, including intergenerational tension, neighbors' support and rivalry, loyalty and betrayal.
Bahrani did his homework, talking for hours with Midwest farmers who kept saying it's get big or get out, expand or die. Even so, as shooting got closer, Bahrani felt so nervous that he called noted German director Werner Herzog, as Bahrani related at the Telluride Film Festival. Herzog said about Quaid, "He's a professional actor, just ask him how he's going to walk." In fact, Quaid had been calibrating the whole film with his walk and his head and shoulders. He makes the nonverbals count. Kim Dickens as Irene brings a solid, common-sense attitude to the proceedings. As rebellious son Dean who aspires to NASCAR racing, Zac Ephron is less than convincing though the family dissension feels real.
Unfortunately about two-thirds of the way through, Bahrani and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton lose the balance of all the issues with a lame plot development, never regaining their equilibrium. "At Any Price" has good moments with more promise than full delivery. At a Landmark Theatre.