In the golden cornfields of Iowa, the cherished Americana portrait of grain farming is changing under the domination of corporate agribusiness. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a fake-folksy farmer who sells GMO seeds to pay for his modern machinery, is feeling the pressure on all sides: from a rival salesman (Clancy Brown) who is gaining on his territory; from his hard-driving father (Red West) who wants the farm passed down to the next generation as it was to him; and from his own big-business model of success; “Expand or die,” he explains to his younger son, Dean (Zac Efron), after making a sleazy, insensitive land purchase at a funeral.
Despite his aw-shucks avowals of old-fashioned virtues, Henry is cheating on his devoted wife (Kim Dickens) with his office assistant (Heather Graham). No wonder his sons want to escape from his hypocritical smothering. The older son Henry prefers is mountain climbing in Argentina, and Dean, a talented stock-car driver, has dreams of NASCAR. It’s as a present-day Midwest portrait, complete with Dean’s flaxen-haired girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), an appealing, abandoned girl who wants to be part of his family, which the script comes on strong. A more realistic and rounded view of the heartland than the recent Promised Land (Matt Damon’s more entertaining but less substantial portrayal of a farmland sell-out), At Any Price is also a conscientious portrait of fathers and sons: Dean responds to his father’s unctuous attention by accelerating his natural daredevilry.
As this familial pressure-cooker simmers, Henry’s empire building is put at risk by corporate investigators who have been tipped off that he is replanting his seeds, a criminal action (any resemblance to Monsanto is entirely intentional). “They’ve copyrighted life,” an exasperated Henry explains to Cadence, his sales trainee. The easy rapport—and the texture it adds—between Henry and his son’s girlfriend can be credited to the actors, while West is to be commended for his brief but incisive contribution as Henry’s implacable father.
And then, just as the gorgeous photography of amber waves of grain becomes suspiciously intrusive, a crisis occurs that throws the film completely off track. This gratuitous eruption of violence and melodrama was meant perhaps to jack up the story’s action, yet it has the opposite effect, extinguishing its mood of contemplative menace (as well as reminding some audiences of the vastly superior heartland thriller, Flesh and Bone, still one of Quaid’s best performances). Despite a bravely downbeat ending, At Any Price is as distastefully mutated as the biotech crops rippling so picturesquely on the horizon.