Conceptually, At Any Price positions itself as an amalgam of a picture. It initially registers as a generational conflict amongst father and son working within the confines of an environmentally-conscious tale. So basically, The Place Beyond the Pines meets Promised Land. But as the picture unfolds with a plot filled with contrivances and a very expressive performance from Dennis Quaid, At Any Price adopts a line of satire that has all the trappings of a Paul Verhoeven film. A film so drenched in Americana, Ramin Bahrani addresses a toxic and volatile American culture that accepts an increasingly warped moral sensibility.
The gung-ho acting from Dennis Quaid instills the first sense of dread to the picture’s tapestry. His overt enthusiasm at a funeral, as he inquires on purchasing the land of the recently deceased, has the sort of smarmy vileness of that made Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood so successful. It’s an impressive performance, though an odd one – Quaid’s elastic features and general demeanor at times seems otherworldly, particularly given the gorgeous vistas that Bahrani frames as his backdrop. Stunning visual imagery occupies the frame even as Quaid triumphantly flaunts his own gushing superficiality. By deploying so many overtly American concepts and idols, particularly Zac Efron’s James Dean-esque performance of hyper-masculine posturing, Bahrani consciously and effectively probes how fucked up our moral compasses have become in the vain search of achieving the American dream.
With Spring Breakers still fresh in my mind, At Any Price works as an expertly crafted companion piece to Harmony Korine’s candy-colored breakdown of contemporary American culture. Critical at their cores, the major takeaway from both films is a growing unrest in future generations, where morals and ideologies are reshaped by cultural and technological changes. Bahrani is wise to address this in his film, never providing a clear answer on his stance; few contemporary films have openly discussed the complicated politics of farming and GMOs as consciously as At Any Price. Much like his previous film, Goodbye Solo, Bahrani has the uncanny ability to complicate the emotional stakes of something that may seem ripe for cliché. The individual moments and ideas prevalent in At Any Price are familiar, but they’re unified by a bold critique. In a scene where audience members sing the national anthem at a racing event, Bahrani provides this sense of familiarity with the new – the tired tune is sung not with pulsating patriotism but rather with exhausted reserve. It’s a grim but powerful image that serves to touch upon a disenchanted population – a provocation that At Any Price commands.