Responding to the uproar earlier this month over the passage — and President Obama's signage — of the so-called "Monsanto Protection Act," the gene-bending agri-giant Monsanto issued a press release dismissing any attendant conspiracy theories as "worthy of a B-grade movie script."
They got it half right.
Immediate in its politics yet Shakespearean in its echoes, At Any Price, the latest film from Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), searches for America's soul in the cutthroat world of contemporary agriculture. There the director finds an ethos worthy of Gordon Gekko: "The idea was to show how Wall Street has come to the family farm," Bahrani says. "Instead of skyscrapers, you have corn."
The film also marks Bahrani's departure from a very scrappy form of indie filmmaking, at least by virtue of his cast: Dennis Quaid plays the Willie Loman-esque Henry Whipple, farmer and salesman for the Liberty Seed Co. Erstwhile High School Musical sweetheart Zac Efron is Henry's son and NASCAR hopeful Dean, and the supporting cast includes Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, and young Maika Monroe, who seems to exists on a plane between archangel and meth-lab toy.
Researching the story in the Midwest, Bahrani heard farmers say "expand or die" almost as a mantra. "I heard it everywhere I went," says Bahrani, who usually lives in Williamsburg, but stayed with several welcoming farm families during his time in Iowa and Indiana, where possession of even hundreds of acres of land is just a starting point. "You have 10,000 acres, then you're a player," Bahrani says at the offices of Sony Pictures Classics, his distributor. "But it's like everything. Look at Walmart. The Walton family owns more than 40 percent of the country, total. And farms are like Walmart: The big farms squeeze out the small farms, towns disappear, schools close, people vanish."
This isn't news, exactly, but Dennis Quaid is: Under Bahrani's direction, the veteran actor creates a painful metaphor for American self-delusion, his character's facade cracking ever so delicately, layer by tortured layer. Henry — a coiled spring with a smile — is taking the "get big or get out" policy of American farming to its soulless commercial extreme. Early on, he even takes his disgusted son to a funeral of a neighboring farmer, trying to buy up his land before the body's even cold. Quaid's synthesis of glad-handing and cold calculation is chilling, and Bahrani is an obvious admirer.
"I'm used to non-actors," he says. "I wasn't sure how this was going to work. Then I saw him on this episode of Ellen doing improvisational comedy, and it gave me a glimpse into who he really was. He's obviously talented. He's iconic. He went into space [in The Right Stuff]. I thought, all these things could be turned upside down. This could really help me."
Also, as Bahrani points out, people love Dennis Quaid. And Dennis Quaid is a pro. "We got to the point on set where I would start to say something to him, and he would just wave me off. I thought, well, that's kind of rude. But then in the scene he would have it, exactly what I was going to say. I asked him how he knew, he said 'Thirty years, kid.' Just like that. 'Thirty years, kid . . .'"
Amid his other ongoing crises — an affair with local beauty Meredith (Graham), the loss of his best-salesman status to his colleague, Jim Johnson (Brown) — Henry is also trying to get the Liberty people off his case: He's been reselling seed, a violation of Liberty's rules (and Monsanto's). With Grant, his favorite son and presumed heir, having escaped the farm and its dysfunctional family, Henry tries to resuscitate a relationship with Dean, who isn't having it. All of this is prelude to the Greek-flavored tragedy to come.
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In one sense, Bahrani is demolishing whatever remains of the pastoral mythos of American farming, although he says it's not an "agenda movie," and he has no position on Monsanto. He says he recognizes that GMOs and the patenting of life forms are dubious pursuits; Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, is a friend and consulted on the film. But Bahrani also isn't sure how the developing world is going to feed itself without the kind of high-yield seed that Monsanto has patented.
Bahrani can't hide his pleasure at having erected, with Quaid, a monument to American hypocrisy in Henry Whipple, and taken a public potshot at Monsanto. He relishes taking swats at monolithic targets. His next project: is about the housing crisis in Orlando. He can't reveal the title ("even the title is good . . .") but he says it'll be about the "99 percent sticking a dagger in the heart of the 1 percent."
He breaks out his phone to show a photo of an ankle holster and an automatic pistol.
"Standard-wear equipment for every real estate agent in Florida," he explains, knowing full well that's seed enough to yield something mighty.