Saturday, December 07, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—At Any Price (2013) ***½

R, 105 min.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Ramin Bahrani, Hallie Elizabeth Newton
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Maika Monroe, Kim Dickens, Red West, Clancy Brown, Ben Marten, Chelcie Ross, Dan Waller

“At Any Price” is the first sign I’ve seen in a Ramin Bahrani film that there may not be hope for humanity. The son of Iranian immigrants, Bahrani makes movies that are quintessentially American. They all involve some version of The American Dream. “Man Push Cart” follows an Iranian rock star who has immigrated to New York City and now reaches for his American dream by pushing a food cart around the city. It’s a hard life, but better than what he left. “Chop Shop” looks at the world of the chop shops located in the shadow of Mets Stadium through the eyes of a young boy who makes the best he can out of nothing with his sister. “Goodbye Solo” follows a Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina trying to earn enough to buy his own cab. An old bitter man solicits the cabbie to drive him to a specific place on a specific date and leave him there. Concerned for what the old man plans the cabbie decides to befriend him. Even Bahrani’s short film “Plastic Bag”, which imagines the inner monologue of a plastic bag has a dollop of the American Dream contained within it.

In all of these films, the American experience is far from perfect, but it offers these people hope for something better. In “At Any Price”, Bahrani finds himself deep in the American heartland with a farmer pursuing the most American of dreams, securing a future for his family through the family farm. Dennis Quaid stars as an opportunist who wants one of his sons to continue in the family business and desires his own father’s approval desperately. One son seemed the perfect candidate with a football scholarship to Iowa State, but when his education is concluded he doesn’t return home, preferring globe trotting to find himself. The other son, played by Zac Efron, has no interest in the farm and dreams of joining the NASCAR circuit.

The difference between this film and Bahrani’s previous ones is the final conclusions to which his character’s choices lead. The title says it all. What good is the American Dream if it is reached at any price?

I saw more technical problems in this movie than I have in any previous films by this director. I believe his unfamiliarity with harvesting, or perhaps limitations in the production schedule may have lead to some seasonal inconsistencies. There are also some behaviors by the main characters that seem forced into the situations. This is the weakest of his films. Yet, it still carries a powerful story and unforgiving themes.

Perhaps it is because I’m from away where I live in the Midwest, but I felt Bahrani’s depiction of the attitudes and social practices of the area to be spot on. Everybody always talks about how friendly it is here in the Midwest, and that’s true to a degree. People are friendly on the surface, but once you’ve settled in there is a great sense that behind your back few people would be as nice as they are to your face. Everybody seems to have something to hide. Not necessarily things that need to be hidden, but it’s as if people feel they need to guard what is theirs at all cost. As such, it is the perfect setting for this story.

The conclusion of the film is dark and involves a very big secret guarded by an entire family. It makes one question this American Dream in a way that Bahrani has never seemed to in the past. It may make the film a little harder for a broader audience to enjoy. It looks at a nature of behavior in these great States that we would probably rather pretend doesn’t exist. That may very well be why we should look at it.

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