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'At Any Price': Seeds of woe down on the farm ★★ 1/2

"At Any Price," a roughly mixed but interestingly plotted offshoot of "Death of a Salesman" and other hardy father/son perennials, is the fourth feature from writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose career has been remarkable for his consistency of theme as well as his eagerness to nudge himself toward greater ambition.

Born and raised in North Carolina, now living and working in New York, Bahrani launched his feature filmmaking career with three remarkable pictures about American life, dreamers and strivers.

"Man Push Cart" (2005) was a "Bicycle Thieves"-indebted slice of realism, set among street food vendors in Manhattan; even better was "Chop Shop" (2007), focusing on a brother and a sister's precarious existence in and among the auto repair shops in Queens. More traditionally structured, "Goodbye Solo" (2008) spent some lovely time with a Senegal-born cabbie in Winston-Salem, N.C., as he developed a relationship with a passenger on a life-ending mission.

Now comes "At Any Price," shot in and around DeKalb, Ill., on a modest budget. It's the filmmaker's first project with names: Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron are top-billed, as desperate father and rebellious son in a third-generation southwestern Iowa farm family reaching various points of crisis.

Our first sight of Henry, a semitransparent charmer as portrayed by Quaid, is that of a grave-robber in action. Henry shows up to pay his respects at a rival farmer's funeral, and then instructs his son Dean (Efron) to close the deal and offer to buy the 200 acres. Now, this is a risk. It's a risk for any screenwriter (Bahrani wrote "At Any Price" with Hallie Elizabeth Newton) being so clear straight off about the weaselly motivations of a character such as Henry. His glory days behind him, or so he fears, Henry has his favorite son, the one off traveling the world. And then he and his valiant wife (Kim Dickens) have Dean, a promising stock car racer with little interest in farming, or selling genetically modified seed corn.

For better or worse, "At Any Price" takes plenty of time and interest in the challenges of the modern-day farmer, pressured from all sides either to expand or contract, tempted by the Faustian bargain of reusing genetically modified seed illegally. Competition is tough all around. Henry is a mess inside. His mistress (Heather Graham) knows there's a good man somewhere beneath the braggadocio. Somewhere.

Compared with his earlier work, Bahrani's latest is willfully all over the place, with a full plate of characters jostling for screen time. By design something's missing from Henry — a moral compass, to begin with. There's also something missing from Henry as a dramatic construct: "At Any Price" sets him up not as compromised man on a wire but as a pathetic shell. And yet the narrative takes a surprising turn, leading to a troubling and, I think, successful third act. Most uneven pictures have a way of fading to gray in the final lap; this one actually gets better as it goes.

The acting is an asset. At this stage of his long-lived acting game, Quaid easily suggests the former star athlete turned hardy middle-aged specimen, and he doesn't care much about audience sympathy when it's not called for. Efron, too, whose character here has an edge, is discovering the virtues of vice. Both the strengths and the drawbacks of "At Any Price" speak well of Bahrani. His next film, I suspect, will return him fully to form.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'At Any Price' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language)
Running time: 1:45
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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