The 38-year-old filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has emerged as one of the most exciting artists on the cinema scene in recent years, with his mesmerizing debut film "Man Push Cart" and then with "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo."
Perfecting an intimately observant camera and spontaneous style, Bahrani has become the leading voice within a movement of American neo-realist filmmakers who have injected new energy, urgency and poetics into a narrative form that can easily suffer from sloppiness and pretension.
With "At Any Price," Bahrani abandons the style he helped rejuvenate, with mixed results. The story of an Iowa farm family caught up in a matrix of dire financial pressure, hegemonic agribusiness, genetic engineering and the drama of ambition and personal deception, "At Any Price" looks and feels more classical and less immediate than Bahrani's past works, hewing to a conventional structure that feels both overworked and undercooked.
With Dennis Quaid delivering a hysterically hectoring turn as the over- extended family farmer at the story's core, "At Any Price" clearly reflects Bahrani's compassion and sympathy for even the most troubling contradictions that plague the modern-day Midwest, but the overlay of sweeping classical story points feels subtly inauthentic.
In large part, how you respond to "At Any Price" depends on how you respond to Quaid, who has received praise in other quarters for his portrayal of farmer Henry Whipple, but whose barking, speechifying characterization comes off as forced and over-studied.
As a would-be Willy Loman of the post-Monsanto Corn Belt, Henry is desperately struggling to stay afloat in an era when the family farm is on the verge of disappearing; his specialty is showing up at neighbors' funerals and making an offer on their acreage, with his mortified son Dean (Zac Efron) in tow.
For his part, Dean is longing to blow his hometown and make it big in stock-car racing (his older brother, Grant, has already managed to escape, sending postcards from South America while his parents literally roll out the red carpet for his anticipated return).
His plans will be foiled as some of Henry's secrets come to light and it becomes clear that Henry will go to lengths to get ahead that are completely at odds with his wholesome, straight-arrow disposition.
Admittedly, it takes a few minutes to accept Efron as a sullen, wannabe bad boy, but he grows into the role and, along with Kim Dickens as Henry's wife, Irene, eventually becomes one of the most believable players of "At Any Price."
Having spent months in the Midwest doing research, Bahrani brings his reliable eye for beauty to a film that benefits from magnificent shots of lush farmland and the cicada-hum sounds of an American summer, even as it acknowledges the new, unromantic realities of self-driving tractors kitted out with GPS and air conditioning. And the story receives a refreshing, unpredictable jolt when Dean's girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), teams up with Henry as he makes his seed- selling calls, plying customers with candy bars, gimme hats and face-splitting grins.
But all too soon, "At Any Price" succumbs to clunky plot twists, starchily expository dialogue and now-you-see-them, now-you-don't characters that are all the more distressing for being so out of keeping with Bahrani's previous work.
"At Any Price" finally hinges on tragedies, reversals and moral ambiguities of Shakespearean proportions, but they're delivered ploddingly rather than as the intricate parts of an inevitable whole.
The film ultimately suffers from the very phenomenon it laments: Like Henry Whipple's farm, it feels more mechanistic than organic.
AT ANY PRICE
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Chelcie Ross, Maika Monroe, Red West, Ben Marten and Dan Waller
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Rated R (Contains profanity and sexual content including a strong graphic image)