“An artfully downbeat drama that proves easier to admire than to embrace, At Any Price offers another highly specific snapshot of a little-seen American subculture from writer-helmer Ramin Bahrani,” begins Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Although it marks a major step up in budget and ambition, this resonant tale of an Iowa seed-farming family feels perfectly consistent with Bahrani’s shoestring fables (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), tilling unusually serious-minded soil even for a specialty release.”
Oliver Lyttelton sets it up at the Playlist: “Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) runs a moderately successful corn farm—big enough that he’s just been able to buy 200 extra acres, but still far behind his major competitor Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). His hope was that his eldest son Grant would be able to take over the farm, but Grant’s gone traveling, with no sign of returning, so he’s forced to consider black sheep Dean (Zac Efron) who has his own dreams of making it to NASCAR. Their plans come to a head when Dean finally gets a tryout for ARCA (the next step down from NASCAR), just as his father comes under investigation for illegally cleaning and reselling the genetically modified seeds he uses to plant his crops. Their conflicting dreams are set to shatter not only their own lives, but also those of Henry’s wife (Kim Dickens) and Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (newcomer Maika Monroe).”
“Everyone’s American dream in this story comes at the expense of someone else’s,” adds Guy Lodge at In Contention. “The unapologetic, occasionally ungainly symmetry of such plotting… should make it clear that Bahrani is working in a very different register here to the delicately observational indie miniatures on which he built his reputation. Some will find his new approach as heavy-handed or didactic as I found yesterday’s very different American address, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It put me more in mind of the muscular Hollywood melodramas crafted by the likes of Nicholas Ray and George Stevens in the 1950s, back when star-driven character dramas about middle American insecurities were still big business—and not just because Bahrani has improbably secured the services of matinee dreamboat Efron, who looks more like a studio raffle prize circa 1957 with each passing film.”
“It’s an unusual premise and some of the acting isn’t bad,” finds the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “but the story is messy and unsatisfying with a plot-hole you could drive a dozen combine harvesters through, the ending is an outrageous fudge and the lead performance from Dennis Quaid is strange to say the least—for which responsibility must probably be shared between director and actor.”
But for Screen‘s Mark Adams, Quaid is the “impressive backbone of the film,” and David Rooney, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, agrees: Quaid “goes beyond his usual easygoing masculinity to convey the craggy gravitas of a man fixated on building his legacy and heedless of the compromises that entails. It’s to the actor’s credit that Quaid refuses to soften a blowhard character whose surface affability masks an encroaching unscrupulousness. Efron does equally strong work. Continuing to distance himself from his origins as a pretty-boy teen idol, he brings an intense, brooding stillness to the screen here, simmering with the frustrations of small-town entrapment.”
And now Efron’s “signed on to star in writer-director Tom Gormican’s romantic comedy Are We Officially Dating?,” reports Jeff Sneider in Variety. “Gormican’s script, which appeared on the 2010 Black List, follows three friends in Manhattan who make a pact to remain single just as they each start to fall in love.”
Update, 9/2: “One of my favorite films of the year,” declares FirstShowing‘s Alex Billington.
Updates, 9/3: IndieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn finds that Bahrani’s “fourth movie buries his distinguishing qualities in moral grandstanding and familiar inter-generational tensions. It’s not a terrible digression, but notably lacks the same distinction.”
“At Any Price is more mainstream and plot-driven than [Bahrani’s] quiet art-house darlings,” concedes Eric D. Snider at Twitch, “but Bahrani’s affection for humanity remains intact.”
Update, 9/4: “Last seen aping Kiarostami in Goodbye Solo, Bahrani can’t decide this time if he’s making a bad Nicholas Ray movie—all lusty men, wayward youngsters, and maimed bodies—or a ham-fisted satire of Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ ad,” writes Angelo Muredda for Cinema Scope.
Update, 9/10: “Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo all belong on the top shelf of recent American independent film, but ye gods is his At Any Price ever a misfire.” Noel Murray gives it a C at the AV Club.
Updates, 9/15: “The film’s ambitions to update both Hud and Death of a Salesman go haywire in some wild melodrama, involving a death in a cornfield—what’s a hammer doing there?—and the dropping of the race-car plot halfway through.” Mary Corliss for Time: “Excellent supporting performances by Clancy Brown and Dan Waller as Henry’s rivals get lost in Quaid’s fretful overplaying; his face is a balloon of anxiety that could pop at any moment. The story material is fertile, but the dramatic harvest is fallow.”
This is “a major misstep,” finds Bob Turnbull.
Venice, Telluride and Toronto 2012: a guide to the coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily on Twitter and/or the RSS feed. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.