The cost of the American dream explored in At Any Price

by Mark Burger

With his latest film At Any Price , acclaimed filmmaker and Winston-Salem native Ramin Bahrani has made his most starstudded film — and also his most conventional. This observation of the American Dream and the ways and means to maintain it, whether ethical or not, strives to be a profound meditation on contemporary morality.

The film doesn’t quite achieve that goal, and it takes a bit of time to find its pace and its place, yet there are observant and insightful moments that stand out. This is a film that, at the very least, makes a  laudable attempt. It’s about something.

Set in the heartland of America (and filmed in Illinois), the film follows the parallel storylines of Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), who sells seed to the local farmers, and his younger son Dean ( an earnestly surly Zac Efron), who is determined to make his own mark as a racing driver. As fathers and sons are wont to do, Henry and Dean clash repeatedly — each trying to overlook the obvious truth that they’re very much alike.

There are a lot of characters — sometimes too many for the narrative to comfortably handle, including Heather Graham’s town tart with a heart — but the actors perform with conviction. Quaid brings a high-strung affability to his role as a man whose life and livelihood are simultaneously slipping away. Even he doesn’t seem to believe his own sales pitch anymore. There’s nice work from Kim Dickens (as Henry’s wife, herself dissatisfied — mostly with him), young Maika Monroe, and veterans Clancy Brown and Chelcie Ross.

The disconcerting and ambiguous note that the film ends on is, perhaps, its most effective element.