There’s a not-insignificant part of the population that considers the biggest corporate threat to America to be not an energy giant or weapons manufacturers but Monsanto, the agriculture giant involved in genetically modified seeds and other “Franken-foods.” A key part of the American food debate, which is so linked to health issues, agribusiness has gotten little attention in movies other than documentaries, which is why At Any Price is a particular disappointment. Like Promised Land, a similarly earnest, similarly unsuccessful attempt to delve into the problems of the heartland, Price never feels comfortable in its own skin.
Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, a successful seed salesman who may not be successful enough given the cutthroat competition in a field that adopts “expand or die” as a mantra. In an effort to give himself an edge, Whipple starts “cleaning” genetically modified seeds rather than buying new ones each harvest, an infraction that would destroy his business if discovered.
Director Ramin Bahrani is coming off a trio of small masterpieces (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) that were marked by intense attention to detail. At Any Price is his most ambitious consideration of how people try to get ahead in America, but the expanded canvas dilutes his focus. It’s hard to see how a man who once criticized Clint Eastwood as a director of excess could abide by the fruitless material here, or how a director who got such naturalistic performances out of amateurs in his early work flubbed so completely with his casting here. (Zac Efron and Heather Graham, presumably hired to secure funds, hamper things in critically underwritten roles.)
Price has a lot of worthwhile things to say about the state of modern farming and the impact agribusiness has had on it, but while the main story thrust is strong, the film boasts too many distracting subplots and tonal shifts. A late twist with echoes of Mystic River is simply too dark for the movie to handle. It’s as though the film is its own form of a genetically modified food—designed to reach more people, but unappealingly unnatural.