Up to now, the North Carolina-born independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has specialized in stories about immigrants and others on the margins of US society. "Man Push Cart" (2005), "Chop Shop" (2007), "Goodbye Solo" (2008) — these are tiny films with huge hearts. With "At Any Price," Bahrani moves into middle America and closer to the Hollywood mainstream, with a starry cast and ambitious themes that are rooted in the soil while straining for the Shakespearean. That he doesn't quite pull it off doesn't mean he shouldn't have tried.
Besides, "At Any Price" is worth seeing for Dennis Quaid tearing into his most complex role in years: Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer, seed salesman for an agribusiness giant, and a hollow man. Henry's the kind of guy who has a smile and a slick line of patter for everyone he meets. He sees himself as a family man and a pillar of his community, even as he's cheating his company and cheating on his wife (Kim Dickens) with a local floozy (Heather Graham).
Henry's only fooling himself when "At Any Price" opens. Older son Grant (Patrick W. Stevens) is out of the movie and as far away from dad as possible, climbing peaks in South America. Rebellious second son Dean (Zac Efron) would rather race cars at the local track and wait for NASCAR to come calling. The economic crisis hangs like tornado weather in the near background. And Henry — "the number 1 seed salesman in seven counties" — is losing clients to imperious rival Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) and his boys.
There's a lot of Arthur Miller in the movie's DNA. As a salesman clinging to life and livelihood, Quaid makes you feel the character's sweat. Henry's a charlatan and a blowhard, but he doesn't have what it takes to be a successful scoundrel, and he knows it. When Red West turns up as Henry's father, Cliff — a wily, mean old patriarch — you sense everything the son has been up against since day one.
Efron is surprisingly effective as a small-town star who shares more of his dad's flaws than he cares to admit, but the movie is almost stolen by Maika Monroe as Dean's girlfriend Cadence, who comes from a broken home (mom cooks meth, dad's in prison) but whose natural head for business surprises both Henry and herself. The least bounded by family or community, Cadence is the only character who sees the others in all their damning contradictions.
The other women's roles are less fleshed-out. Bahrani fills the frame with weathered faces, and even more than another recent farm drama, "Promised Land," "At Any Price" feels like it unfolds in real places, with real people. Bahrani's not out to make a polemic. He knows we know the pressures faced by rural farming communities as corporations move in, and he lets the characters' actions, practical or desperate, speak pointedly to the larger picture.
Where "At Any Price" feels less sure is in its plotting, which builds to a pitch of melodrama that feels increasingly forced. Bahrani is brilliant at small gestures and the way they can speak volumes, but in "At Any Price" he's aiming for grand tragedy, and he doesn't yet have the knack. The pacing of the final act is uncertain; the epic sweep doesn't arrive. All that you take away — and it's certainly something — is the devastation on Henry's face as he realizes what his son's true inheritance will be. Bahrani wants to give us drama that's larger than life. Doesn't he know he's already one of the best there is at making it life-sized?
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.