“At Any Price” Lobbies on the Farm Bill

At Any Price is a startling accomplishment: a deeply populist film about an issue affecting rural America and featuring a genuine movie star. Dennis Quaid may not be Hollywood’s hot young thing anymore, but he has improved with age, and he gives the performance of a lifetime as Henry Whipple, a fourth-generation Iowa corn farmer and seed salesman, “number one in seven counties.” As he struggles to keep his farm afloat and his conscience clean, At Any Price becomes a devastating indictment of corporate agriculture and its impact on the family farming community.

The film also comes along at a propitious time, when Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Although At Any Price does intend to influence public policy, the timing is just coincidence. The Farm Bill was supposed to be passed last September; not shockingly, Congress couldn’t agree on its provisions, so they gave themselves a one-year extension, and the new deadline is this September. But May is a crucial month, as both the House and the Senate will be bringing their version of the bill to a vote before the painful process of merging the two, which could last all summer.

The problems associated with U.S. agricultural policy are vast, but the filmmakers keep their focus fairly narrow, and the results are mixed.  Their intent is clear: director Ramin Bahrini seems intent on conveying his populist message through the characters, and the Whipple family’s problems do not include such important Farm Bill subjects as food stamps or conservation, forestry, or trade issues. Instead, the film sounds a note of alarm about the de facto state of deregulation in our agricultural policy that allows corporate giants like the film’s Liberty Seed Company (a clear stand-in for Monsanto) to squeeze family farmers dry until they turn on each other, destroying the very fabric of the American farming community in the process.

 

To the extent that this narrative succeeds, the credit must go to Quaid, whose performance  seems like the culmination of the actor’s overlooked career. The role of Whipple could be seen as a revisionist take on the characters with which Quaid is often associated: innocent Midwestern boys like Mike in Breaking Away or Gavin Grey in Everybody’s All-American. Whipple presents that image to his customers, but behind closed doors, the façade is crumbling.

His son, Dean (Zac Efron), is uninterested in taking over the family farm; he wants to race cars instead. A competitor, played by great character actor Clancy Brown, is stealing his customers. The affair he is having with his secretary (Heather Graham) is taking a toll on his marriage. Worst of all, Liberty has received a tip that he is re-selling their patented, genetically modified seeds to his customers, a violation of contract that could cost him the entire farm, and have launched an investigation. Quaid holds these disparate elements together, giving a complex, layered performance of a man whose love for his family has turned into an ugly burden. Self-preservation morphs into a cold narcissism, and Quaid shows us every step of this descent.

But despite his efforts, the personal story never quite gels, mostly because he lacks an able partner. Efron can’t hold his own in his scenes with Quaid, and there is no sense of history between father and son. Further, while the film packs a wallop in the final third, the set-up is clumsy and contrived. Bahrini thoroughly outlines his movies before writing them, and his process of putting the movie together is palpable to the viewer.

dennis-zac-at-any-price

Without an engaging story, all we have left is Bahrini’s populist message. As a didactic work, At Any Price is too narrow to have an impact, and there were many opportunities to expand the breadth of the message. All of that corn that Whipple grows is turned into animal feed, and most dietary experts acknowledge that the huge amount of animal products Americans eat is contributing to our disease epidemics. The air pollution and run-off from industrialized animal farms (known as CAFOs) causes severe health problems for neighboring communities. And the genetically-engineered corn seeds that play such a crucial role in the plot? That’s an issue currently being addressed both at the federal and state levels. Just last month, liberal lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which requires labeling of all GMO products.

But because the film’s focus is so narrowly focused on the plight of the family farmer, we really need to care about this family to make it work. And Quaid is the only actor who really succeeds on that front. His terrific performance is not enough for the movie to succeed as a film, but if it gets the film in theaters and helps spread the message, it will have been worth the trouble.

Perhaps we should just marvel at the fact that this movie even got made in the first place. Hollywood is not exactly eager to finance adult dramas these days. That’s especially true for rural dramas; most movie tickets are bought in cities and suburbs, not in places like southwestern Iowa, where At Any Price takes place. Lastly, this is a challenging film that asks its audience to think critically about the impact of corporatism and apply those lessons to policy. Most movies lean conservative because they offer a return to the status quo by the final reel. At Any Price ensures you will leave the theater thinking, and these days, that’s a win.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

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