You’ve probably heard the common expression, that “Blood is thicker than water.” Even if you haven’t though, its meaning is simple: the bonds of family are stronger than those to everyone else in a community. As such, most people are willing to do anything to protect their clan’s good name and to keep their kin safe from danger. This easy-to-grasp concept is the core message of writer/director Ramin Bahari’s familial drama “At Any Price,” yet for some reason he chooses an unnecessarily tedious route to arrive at that point.
“At Any Price” takes place in small-town Iowa, where it centers on farmer/businessman Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid). Whipple is a smug, self-assured shyster who oozes down-home Midwestern charm, while living very comfortably with his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) and his rebellious son Dean (Zac Efron). Henry’s other boy Grant, the reliable son he hopes will take over the family business, is out of the country exploring South America. With Grant gone, Dean is Henry’s next best hope, but unfortunately Dean has big dreams of becoming a Nascar driver that he’d rather follow.
After Henry’s business is threatened by tough competition and investigation for potentially unscrupulous practices, he desperately reaches out to Dean for help saving face in front his own father and his community. Given the rift between the two, will Henry be able to repair his relationship with Dean in time to make a difference?
That one central question should be enough to carry the film. However Behari muddies the waters by including side conflicts involving infidelity, resentful business partners, and even manslaughter to firm up his point about the lengths that members of a family will go to protect one another. Incorporating this many themes, distracts from the main father-son dynamic, which could have been meaningful enough on its own to make the same point. Plus, the agonizingly slow pacing of the film makes these disparate struggles completely uninteresting.
Although Quaid and Dickens give solid performances, this picture’s biggest shortcoming is that there are almost no likable characters. Henry is an obnoxious, arrogant sleaze, Irene enables him by putting up with way too much, and Dean is a reckless, ungrateful brat. The only person you can sympathize with is Dean’s girlfriend, Candice (Maika Monroe), an unfortunate girl without parental guidance who becomes an adopted member of the Whipple clan.
Candice’s journey and that of Henry’s son Grant in “At Any Price” make an unintentionally acerbic point about small-town people. The ones who stick around clinging to tradition are mostly terrible human beings, while those with more to offer the world can’t and shouldn’t be bothered with staying.
To Henry’s credit, he does slowly begin to realize the error of his ways, however by the time he finally attempts to repair some of his mistakes, you can’t help feeling like it’s too little, too late. Despite the happy note the movie ends on, there are still a disgusting number of skeletons left in this family’s closet. This of course, begs the question, “Is acceptable not only to commit egregious acts, but to cover them up if you’re protecting people you care about?” I don’t certainly think it is, but this film seems to disagree.