As a rule, the fuzzier a movie's title, the blurrier its story. For proof, see the recent thriller-drama-saga "The Place Beyond the Pines," last year's not-really-a-romance 'People Like Us" and Ramin Bahrani's new feature, "At Any Price," about an Iowa farming family facing a series of crises.
"At Any Price" initially strikes the familiar notes of a family drama: Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) and his wife, Irene (Kim Dickens), are successfully turning his father's modest farm into a newfangled agribusiness, but their son Dean (a brooding Zac Efron) has other plans. Dean, a rebel like his namesake, has found two ways to irk his father: pursuing a career in NASCAR racing, and dating a fast-moving townie, Cadence (an appealing Maika Monroe).
Henry has his own fast-mover on the side, Meredith (Heather Graham), but "At Any Price" sets its sights on a larger issue: the weird science of genetically modified farming. Henry is being investigated for cleaning and reselling seeds, a natural-enough process now made illegal by the agri-behemoth Liberty Seeds. "They've copyrighted life," Henry fumes. His next thought: Who ratted him out?
If this distracted film has a focal point, it's Quaid, delivering a tour-de-force performance as a stressed-out, well-intentioned but morally compromised Midwestern businessman. He's remarkable, especially considering that "At Any Price" pulls its fine cast in all directions as it tries to find the right approach to its multiple themes. Bahrani ("Man Push Cart") and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton (this is her first feature) have made the Whipples so deeply flawed -- an attempt to "complicate" them, perhaps -- that they no longer feel like underdogs but the entitled, self-serving villains we've seen in many other heartland dramas.
In the end, "At Any Price" strikes a dark, even ghastly tone, and rather suddenly it becomes a cynical commentary on small-town hypocrisy and American business. It's hard to tell whether that was the intention.
PLOT A family farm is jeopardized by personal tensions, dirty dealings and the march of progress.
RATING R (language, sexuality, brief violence)
BOTTOM LINE Quaid, as a desperate businessman, reminds us how good he can be with a deeply felt performance. The movie, unfortunately, isn't his equal.