Farm films blow up human drama to mythic, big-sky terms in which the world itself is represented by a character's land, hard-earned and easily lost. Vast landscapes, both psychic and literal, are threatened by unstoppable outside forces. Like zombie movies, farm films are vast canvases for directors to project whatever social issues ring their philosophical chimes. The villains are often greedy banks or bad weather, but director Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price places a large, third-generation family farm in jeopardy not from a faceless lending institution, but from the doughy, Penney's-clad inspectors of an agricultural biotech corporation.
Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has enlarged his family's bountiful farmstead by absorbing competitors, and he supplements his revenues with a side venture as a seed distributor for a Monsanto-like company. Henry's deepest wish is to pass his family's legacy on to his sons, but the oldest has fled across the globe, and the youngest, Dean (Zac Efron), hates farming. He's also a rebel who rejects his father's precious rules. A talented amateur stock-car driver, Dean aspires to be a NASCAR racer and speed away from Iowa, probably ripping a few doughnuts through the cornfields on his way out.
And what kid wouldn't want to escape this hard-featured landscape? It's an un-pretty topography of corrugated silos, cornfields and hard sun, where there's exactly one career option open to high-school graduates. Bahrani's portrayal of the culture cuts deep, ringing true in its dialogue, Wal-Mart wardrobes, and such small details as Henry's humble Casio watch and the Mead notepad in his shirt pocket. Henry, meanwhile, is a man who lives at a significant distance from his soul, a wedge driven by his overbearing father (Red West), to whom revenue growth is greater than filial concerns.
Quaid has a genius for broadcasting conflicting impulses. His body language twists uncomfortably away from his intentions, and his smile is built on the chassis of a cringe. Married to Irene (Kim Dickens), whom he clearly loves, Henry has tawdry office trysts with Heather Graham. Is it worse that he makes money on the down-low by violating genetic patents, holding back part of his harvest and reselling the seed stock? The film, which compares Quaid's agricultural shenanigans to DVD piracy, weighs patent infringement and adultery about equally.
Henry's primary competitor, salesman Jim Johnson, is played by Clancy Brown, here as crinkly and unctuous as Quaid. Johnson has scooped up some of Henry's big seed accounts, and his hotheaded son challenges Dean on the racetrack.
The film does have its warm, beating heart. Dean's girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), is smart enough to help Henry win back a lost client and to shame the older woman with designs on her boyfriend. Monroe is charismatic and funny, imbuing Cadence with uncynical irony and emotional depth. Cadence's ultimate unwillingness to put up with Dean's bullshit gives the film a moral compass and pretty much makes her the only character to walk away uncompromised.