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The American Dream begets an image of hard work and endless opportunity, but it doesn’t reveal anything about what to do when the achievement of said dream means depriving others of theirs. It’s this idea that informs writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s darkly elegiac examination of the high stakes world of modern agriculture with its massive super-farms, GMO seeds, and dependence on “expansion or death”. Featuring standout performances from Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, At Any Price is a heartfelt, brutal, and undeniably compelling look at our most American of subcultures.

The Whipple’s Iowa farm has been in the family for generations. Now run by Henry, (Quaid) it’s a massive modern family homestead replete with all of the space-age gadgets necessary to function successfully in today’s increasingly monopolized agricultural climate. Gone are the old days of honest if backbreaking small-scale farming, as today’s guys compete not only locally for land but also globally in a skyrocketing market where grain seeds are traded like gold. It’s a hard knock life, but somebody’s got to do it, and unfortunately neither of Whipple’s strapping young sons seems quite ready.

Despite his status as the golden boy, Grant (Patrick Stevens) has gotten the hell out of dodge with a college football scholarship, and now chooses to spend holidays avoiding the family by climbing mountains in Argentina. Meanwhile Dean (Efron) has even less interest in his birthright, instead nursing dreams of leaving the figure-eight racing circuit for the bright lights of NASCAR. It turns out Henry’s sons resent their father’s capitalistic mono-vision as well as the slimy used-car salesman he’s become to keep his title of Number #1 Liberty Seed Purveyor in 7 Iowa counties. Fighting fronts on all sides, Henry must stave off the interminable competition while simultaneously attempting to win back the affection of his cherished family and somehow stay afloat in the most challenging and uncertain of times.

Clearly, life for the entire Whipple family is anything but easy, and writer/director Ramin Bahrani is unflinching in his depiction of their struggle. This is not just the land that inspired folktales and legends, this is the place of fierce devotion to Jesus and country, fast cars, faster guns, and of course, crumbling economic stability. In choosing this lionized subset, the director raises questions about the ethos of our country, including the any-means-to-an-end culture of rampant capitalism.

Bahrani and his co-writer, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, do a fantastic job of capturing exactly what makes these men tick and just how competitive and cutthroat America’s Heartland can be. Profiling the complex relationship between brothers, but more importantly, between father and son, the film abounds with fascinatingly biblical motifs of unalienable birthrights, loyalty, and familial expectation. Even the mafia undertone involving blood feuds and hostile takeovers of territory works effectively, providing real urgency and action. Unfortunately, the two main female players, Ma Whipple (Kim Dickens) and Cadence Farrow (Dean’s live-in girlfriend, played by Maika Monroe) are not afforded the same character development in plotlines that feel forced. Though at least they weren’t saddled with Heather Graham’s thankless, go-nowhere role as the town floozy.

However, despite a few holes in characterization, Bahrani is a skilled director who knows how to move a story along, especially when it comes to capturing the action. The film’s racing sequences are flush with tight precision and perfectly calibrated excitement, while the immensity of the large cornfields and uber-farms beautifully highlight the desperation of tiny, insignificant man to leave his mark on a landscape so awe-inspiring in its immensity. Yet rather than take this into Michael Bay-style, music-video bombast, the sound effects, angles, and movement of the camera all expertly ground this fable in the reality of flesh-and-blood America.

Of course, it helps that in Quaid and Efron, Bahrani has found two talented, dedicated actors to bring his story to life. No longer the strapping hunk of Great Balls of Fire!, Quaid’s handsome features have aged beyond their delicate prettiness and now seem to bely a real complexity honed from experience. At times twisting his matinee smile into a Nicholsonian demonstration of forced, almost macabre intention, he is no less than flawless when showing us the crippling moral compromises that this man has had to make to preserve what means the most to him: farm, family, and country.

Also effective is Efron whose boyish features perfectly resemble those of a younger Quaid and who excels at showing us the lasting emotional scars inflicted by years of nothing but expectation and neglect. Dean reps a generation left orphaned by their parent’s mandatory 24-7 struggle to stay afloat; only to be readopted when it’s time to inherit the back-breaking yoke of the farmstead. With Bahrani’s help, Efron gives his most complex, fully realized screen performance to date, ably demonstrating the unmoving chip on the youngest Whipple’s shoulder that unfortunately brings about disastrous consequences.

Rife with real characters (at least, the men) facing life-or-death issues, At Any Price is a film that will stay with you. Bahrani brings his complex and intricate worldview to highlight an aspect of the population often only considered when subject to disinterested expectation or the occasional pang of nostalgia for the Americana of days past. With the help of his two talented leading men, the director drops us right in the middle of this world, in a taught, uncompromising family saga where no one’s a true victim or victor.