*A version of this review was posted at The Film Experience during TIFF12.
At Any Price is Ramin Bahrani's first film to feature no immigrant characters, and perhaps subsequently, use Hollywood stars instead of amateurs. It’s an interesting change for a director whose films have come to be known for their intimacy and real life feel. At Any Price tells the story of a crumbling farming empire owned by Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid). Whipple, who's inherited the farms from his father, is failing to convince his two sons to enter the family business. His elder son has left America and gone on an adventure in the mountains of Argentina.
It is his second son, Dean (Zac Efron), an aspiring race car driver, whom we see more of as he gradually begins to confront his father over years of repressed emotions. Bahrani, whose previous features dug deep into the realization of the American dream, here looks at how that dream is falling apart. The crushing "expand or die" mentality of modern America is constantly contrasted with a nostalgic, some might say sentimental, view of a not-so-distant past when life was, to put it simply, easier, or more innocent.
America itself is without a doubt the most prominent character in the film. But while I, along with many others, found the strongly pronounced symbolism a bit much, the good still far outweighs the bad. The sensitive imagery of the film, the sweeping vistas, Dennis Quaid's curiously over the top but poignant performance, even Zac Efron's efforts to make the leap to a more serious side of acting all pay off handsomely in the end. Bahrani continuously builds momentum and takes his characters in unexpected ways. The ambiguity of his film remains more engrossing than messy.
This will surely become Bahrani's biggest hit, though that's not exactly a major financial achievement since his best selling film made less than a million dollars at the box office. But if 2013 is not a specially competitive year for actors, expect to see a push for Quaid in the Best Actor category. That's as far as I imagine the film can go in the awards season.
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