When I went to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois for attending 2010 Ebertfest, I observed one thing still vividly remaining in my mind while I was on a morning train departing from Chicago. As soon as the skyline of Chicago was disappeared from my sight, the vast plain of Illinois was unfolded beyond the window, and it was a rather unsettling experience. It surely looked amazing, but, maybe because I was used to being surrounded by mountains and mounds in South Korea, it also looked fearful to me for its seemingly endless scope.
Shot in the locations in the same state, Ramin Bahrani’s new film “At Any Place” exactly evokes that impression of mine through its authentic rural ambience. The landscapes and buildings in the movie are not far from what I observed during my train ride at that time, and I was drawn to its realistic contemporary sights of the American heartland as a curious outsider wondering what I would get, and I was surely not disappointed in the end.
Through its rather loose plot, the movie gradually presents a jaded portrayal of modified American Dream, which is not so pretty compared to its wide, beautiful landscapes. While modest rural farming is virtually impossible thanks to corporations, the mentality of “Expand or Die” dominates over everyone working in the agricultural business, and the determination to win at any price eventually drives the main characters to the darker area they never imagined before. The movie subtly presents their daily reality while slowly unfolding the contents of its seemingly conventional plot, and then it strikes us with unexpected things followed by the unconventional moments powerful enough to compensate for its several weak points.
At first, its story looks like a predictable drama about the distant relationship between a father and a son. Henry Whipple(Dennis Quaid) has been a successful farmer and businessman living in one county in Iowa, and he is proud of being the most successful salesman in his territory. Representing Liberty Seeds Corporation, his family company has been selling genetically modified seeds from that corporation, and he has more than 3,500 acres of land to grow corn and harvest the seeds to sell to many local farmers whom he always invites to his annual party as his trustful clients.
But the circumstance becomes harder for him recently, and we see the other side behind his success and pride. He is currently in the competition with the other major salesman in his area, and he is determined to snatch back his clients in a neighbouring county for being No. 1 again. He is willing to do anything for more wins and more success, and one scene shows him approaching to a grieving family at the funeral for buying the land belonging to the dead man. This is pretty shameless, but he thinks it is a chance too good to miss, and he is right.
He has probably done other indecent or illegal things for his family’s fortune, but his two sons are not very interested in their father’s work. The elder son Grant, who is only seen in the home movie montage at the beginning, left the home, and it looks like he will never come back despite the constant delivery of his postcards from Argentina. The rebellious younger son Dean(Zac Efron) is a racing car driver, and he may rise to the NASCAR level someday considering his continuing victories in the regional races.
While Dean seems to get closer to a big chance for his career, the movie also observes the other things in the world of him and his father and others. We see Henry showing the tricks of his trade to Dean’s current girlfriend Cadence(Maika Monroe), who turns out to be a lot smarter and wiser than we thought. We see how lousy Henry is as a husband and how much his practical wife Irene(Kim Dickens) has been putting up with that. We see the conversation between Henry and his aging father(Red West, who was memorable with Souleymane Sy Savane in Bahrani’s previous work “Goodbye Solo”(2008)), who still exerts stern authority on his middle-aged son. There is also a brief scene involving Dean and others’ minor criminal activity, and, while it looks like a trivial scene on the surface, it actually tells a lot about how Dean and his father are not that different from each other in case of competition and victory.
The movie seems to lack narrative focus at times as it looks around many other things, but the director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani and the cinematographer Michael Simmonds imbues their movie with considerable realistic atmosphere, and its naturalistic approach makes several crucial turns in the story feel less contrived than they could have been. The movie nearly approaches to the soap opera level in case of a minor character played Heather Graham, but that does not ruin its vivid realism even though the movie is not so sure about what to do with her.
As the movie is more focused during its third act, we come to see Henry as the center of the story, and Dennis Quaid effortlessly presents a flawed complex human being in one of his best performances. Behind Henry’s exaggerated likability and confidence, there is an ordinary man desperately trying to run ahead of others, and Quaid is always convincing in that aspect while never overplaying it. Henry eventually sees what he has become and what he has done to his friends and neighbours in the name of family business, but, despite his regret and guilt, he soon discovers how much price he is willing to pay for just keeping moving on.
The other actors around Quaid also give fine performances. Zac Efron, who has been showing his serious side through several drama films such as “Me and Orson Welles”(2008), is effective as the son changed as much as his father in the end, and Kim Dickens has her own moment when Irene quietly but firmly tells her conflicted husband what they will have to do as a respectable family. Clancy Brown and Chelcie Ross bring humanity to their respective characters despite brief appearances, and Maika Monroe is amiable as a sensible girl who will not tolerate her boyfriend’s irreversible mistake.
I came across Ramin Bahrani’s films in 2009, and I was quite impressed by their remarkable realism and his deft direction behind them. “Man Push Cart”(2005), a small story about a struggling Pakistani immigrant, resonated with my experience in New York in 2004 through its palpable verisimilitude, and “Chop Shop”(2007) immediately gripped my attention with a powerful story of a young, hopeful latino orphan kid trying to fulfill his small precious dream.
Right after I had a terrific experience with “Goodbye Solo” at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2009 April, some audiences seemed to be disappointed by its unclear ending, and I would have told them that what happened inside its two main characters is more important than the ending itself. You may be disappointed by the somber and ambiguous ending of “At Any Price”, but, once you look back at what happened inside the characters, you will eventually feel the emotional weight inside the story – and its title.