In terms of scale and ambition, 'At Any Price' marks a significant shift for indie filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, whose previous efforts include 'Man Push Cart,' 'Chop Shop' and 'Goodbye Solo,' films marked primarily for their understanding of the characters involved – specifically in relation to the every-day nature of their lives. Here, Bahrani's story is pushed to explore a larger narrative that remains intrinsically linked to the study and development of character, exploring the rhythms and actions undertaken by members of a family simultaneously pressed to maintain the business that has been their livelihood for several generations, while desperately hoping for something better in the near future.
To a great extent, Bahrani is out to make a point with concurrent statements on the notion of success, while issuing a fairly heavy-handed account of the increasing corporatized and homogenized system, suggesting that, soon, both will be completely out of reach for the average individual to have any stake in without some great compromise and/or loss of independence and integrity. The points should not come as much of a surprise to anyone, regardless their knowledge of or involvement in farming, as it is a fairly comprehensive statement that could cover all forms of industry, and ultimately, makes Bahrani's constant and overly conscious underlining of said points a drag on the narrative when it should help propel the storytelling.
'At Any Price' sees Dennis Quaid as successful Iowa farmer and seed seller Henry Whipple, a man who is so single-minded in his pursuit of further legitimacy and accomplishment that he's become oblivious to how unlikable and disingenuous his peers, customers and, most importantly, his own family, perceive him to be. Much of this stems from an all-pervading fear of his own shortcomings – which the character erroneously believes he's successfully suppressed – that include failing to best a more successful salesman played by Clancy Brown, and Henry's fear of letting his father down due to an inability to convince either of his sons to take over the family farm. All of this is fairly quaint, familiar stuff that Bahrani augments by also involving the character in various bits of financial wrongdoing and sexual infidelity with a local woman played by Heather Graham.
For his part, Quaid plays Henry constantly on the verge of a breakdown, and while the performance is sound and the ubiquity of Henry's worry and shallowness of his character speak to the compromise and loss of integrity that is front and center in the narrative's themes, it winds up putting too much of the film's focus on an individual and performance that is otherwise one-note. Henry doesn't have a gear other than desperate, hypocritical bastard, and while that seems to be the character depiction du jour, it forces the role of moral compass into the hands of the director, who chooses to aggressively underline his message in the film's text, rather than communicate it through more gradual character or thematic development.
However, Bahrani and his co-writer, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, manage to give a boost to their script by introducing a similar narrative concerning Henry's youngest son, Dean (Zac Efron), who, like his father, yearns for something more, but, in his case, more happens to be the siren song of NASCAR rather than the farm. Dean's earned himself a bit of local celebrity driving stock cars on a dangerous-looking figure eight track and winds up with a real shot at the big leagues before events turn the young man down a more self-destructive and, eventually, conciliatory path that mirrors his father's.
Along with all the death of the Midwestern farm stuff, one can't help but notice a strong component with regard to Quaid's character's assertion one must "Expand or die," and the expansion of Bahrani's scope as a filmmaker – which, includes, for the first time, a stable of recognizable actors, a significant budget and distribution from Sony Classics. Clearly, this would only be noticeable to those familiar with the director's other work, but it's difficult not to wonder just what overly corporatized and homogenized industry that has such strong roots in individuality and independence is really (or additionally) being discussed here.
Taken strictly at face value, 'At Any Price' makes several strong statements about rural America's shifting identity in the face of a rapidly escalating corporate culture and a younger generation whose aspirations don't include following in their father's footsteps by taking over the family farm. And while the film makes those statements abundantly clear, it ironically does so at a price – which is an often overwhelming didacticism to go along with all the melodramatic Midwestern melancholy that keeps the film from truly connecting with Bahrani's usual art house crowd or the more mainstream audiences this film was clearly aiming for.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'At Any Price' hails from Sony Pictures Classics as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc with an available Ultraviolet download. The disc itself contains several previews for upcoming films that can be skipped to jump directly to the top menu.
As with other films on Ramin Bahrani's resume, 'At Any Price' is beautifully shot and the cinematographic effort that is on display is given a fantastic and richly detailed transfer that is on par with the best that Sony has ever offered. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer offers an incredibly bright, vivid image that manages to be incredibly clean without looking overly sterile, cold or artificial.
In nearly every scene, fine detail is present from unique facial features, to texture on clothing and even background elements. Bahrani's cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, has given the film a very deep focus, so that objects and individuals remain visible in the background at all times. The image is so sharp and pristine you could easily count the rows of corn that line the background in so many scenes. Adding to the overall quality of the image is the vivid color that tends to turn certain elements up a notch to make them pop visually, but it's never to the degree that the vibrancy becomes a distraction. In any case, much of what pops here is, of course, the green farmland that makes up these characters' homes and the additional flare of bright, vibrant color actually seems to enhance the look and feel of the film, rather than distract by being overly flamboyant.
With the great detail, vibrant color and superb contrast levels, the transfer on 'At Any Price' only comes up short in a few scenes where the focus seems to be somewhat soft. For most films, this would be mostly unnoticeable, but considering the amount of clarity and detail that's otherwise on display, any instance of soft focus and loss of detail tends to be noticed all the more. Overall, though, it's a great image that will make for a superb viewing experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track actually has to do more work than one might expect from a talky melodrama such as this. Although the majority of the film consists of a series of conversations, there are plenty of chances for the mix to stretch a bit and show off some muscle when it comes to Dean Whipple's stock car racing and his time on the track. In those instances, the dynamic range becomes very impressive, with superb directionality and balance between dialogue and the larger, more robust sounds of high-performance engines and scraping metal which lively bounce around between the front and rear speakers to totally immerse the viewer in an exciting experience that was likely unexpected from the film's synopsis.
In that sense, 'At Any Price' is as good a listening experience as it is a visual one – which makes the shortcomings of the storytelling all the more disappointing. This is a lively mix that constantly works to highlight the sound elements needed to make the scene as impactful as possible. The mix between sound effect, dialogue and score is skillfully handled and makes for a compelling viewing.
Footage of Bahrani blocking out the scenes with non-actors to later be used as reference during actual filming. Nothing terribly interesting here, just a look at how Bahrani likes to extensively prepare for his films.
Films looking to make a point are a lot like music with a message: They often do so at great sacrifice to the subtlety, nuance, and artistry of their chosen medium. In that regard, 'At Any Price' forfeits refinement and charm to constantly underline the already overt points of the narrative. In doing so, the film also loses out on creating compelling characters in favor of making them mouthpieces for a discussion at the expense of thought-provoking, or even well acted performances. Ramin Bahrani is certainly a talented filmmaker, so this will likely just be chalked up to an early misfire in what is an otherwise promising career. With great video and audio, and some mildly interesting supplements, this film is worth a look.