Ramin Bahrani's films are marked both by an immersive exploration of a specific setting, often peeking into a neglected corner of the American experience, and an almost deterministic sense of doom, with their characters predestined for some infelicitous end. These tendencies were most prevalent in the director's first two U.S.-set features, 2005's Man Push Cart and 2007's Chop Shop, in which he called on a choppy neorealist aesthetic to pin his hapless New Yorkers (a street vendor in one, a tweenage hustler eking out a marginal existence in Queen's Willets Point in the other) to their unforgiving environments. With his next film, Goodbye Solo, Bahrani moved on to North Carolina, crafting a story in which the setting wasn't quite as pronounced—or as determinate on its characters' lives—as it was in the earlier works. Still, for all the agency granted to the film's leads, the movie still managed to unreel as a reasonably grim death watch.
So while Bahrani is very good with setting, he's clearly less at ease with narrative, a difficulty he seemed to partly overcome with Goodbye Solo, but which again moves to the forefront in his latest, At Any Price. A fatalistic tale of an Iowa farmer and seed salesman forced to take unsavory measures to keep his business afloat, the film tightens the noose around that character, only to introduce a forced plot twist that turns the movie into a morality play. But with the level of authorial contrivance in large part taking the agency away from the characters, or at least providing them with a set of circumstances in which that agency is easily influenced, the whole basis of the film's ethical reckoning is undercut.
At Any Price stars Dennis Quaid as Henry Whipple, the current head of operations for a farm that's been in the family for years and which he hopes to pass on to one of his two sons, neither of whom seem to want anything to do with either the farm or their father. While Henry's older (and favorite) kid is off climbing mountains in Argentina, he looks to his younger son, Dean (Zac Efron), as the heir, but Dean has dreams of being a NASCAR driver and can't wait to get away from the farm. Meanwhile, in danger of losing many of his longtime seed customers to his chief rival, Henry takes some unsavory measures involving an illegal resale of genetically modified seeds, which leads agents of the agribusiness giant whose product he sells to begin investigating.
Quaid's performance is likely the film's biggest asset, even if it always feels a little too much like he's transparently acting. Playing a glad-handling salesman who seeks to inspire his son with clichéd business-speak, the actor is all ingratiating smiles and sunken posture, and in these gestures we see both the effects of the pressure on the salesman to maintain his customers and the selfish opportunism which alienates those around him and which have his children fleeing for the hills. Similarly, the movie is fairly confident in its depiction of its surroundings. Having given up choppy handheld camerawork for more staid long takes, the filmmaker finds a fit visual analogue for the surface calm of rural Iowa, even as the film's lead character is no less a hustler than his New York counterparts from the earlier films. From one-on-one farm visits to a sequence set at a local car-racing competition, Bahrani crafts a reasonably coherent world of quiet desperation.
Still, for most of the running time, it's not entirely clear in which direction the filmmaker is moving. He introduces a sequence of Henry bonding with Dean's girlfriend (Maika Monroe), only to fail to adequately follow up this narrative development. Similarly, the introduction of a woman (Heather Graham) who works at the local farm co-op and who sleeps with both Henry and Dean seems largely superfluous. At heart, this is a film about the relationship between father and son, as Henry, needing Dean to take over the business after the defection of his older brother, finally begins to take an interest in the life of his younger son. But it's the arrival of the company agents that finally gives shape to the narrative and their meddlesomeness that forges an inextricable bond between Henry and Dean, a direction only made possible through the introduction of a frankly ludicrous plot turn.
This twist manages to extricate the film from its sense of fatalism that had started to drag things into familiar Bahranian territory, but only at the cost of the credibility of the character's actions. It also allows the director to make some rather dull-minded statements about the ruthlessness of business which necessitates achieving success at, per the movie's title, any price, but at least the film has the good sense to make its characters burdened enough by conscience to avoid the smug cynicism which worked so well in a similar plot twist, if very different tonal setting, in Robert Altman's The Player. Instead, Bahrani offers up a somewhat confused film that alternates between business-world morality play, family drama, and portrait of a local community without ever comfortably integrating these disparate elements into his messy stew.