‘At Any Price’: Explores the Darkness in America’s Family Farming Heartland

Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid star in a new drama seeded in the sacrifice of America’s traditional values to a culture of cutthroat competition.

Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid celebrate a successful business in the agricultural industry in At Any Price, a film that asks, ‘At what cost?’ (Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Apr 25, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

In the early days of researching his latest film, At Any Price, writer-director Ramin Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary Food, Inc.

Bahrani found himself in the company of Roush’s father in a tricked-out crop sprayer, trying his hardest to reconcile the image of an old-time farmhand employing a satellite-navigated vehicle to do his daily work.

“I’m sitting there with this guy, and I’m like, ‘Don’t you miss the old days?’ ” Bahrani recalls. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ve got this GPS-driven tractor with air conditioning. It’s comfortable, I’m not breaking my back anymore, and I’m going to be done in time to watch television and put my feet up on the sofa for the rest of the night. Of course, I don’t miss the old days.’ ”

The experience shattered Bahrani’s romantic notions about the contemporary modern farmer.

Still, while he realized that technology has made the actual work farmers do easier, he discovered that it has transformed the agriculture business into a cutthroat industry that increasingly has no room for either the generations-old farms or the values with which they’ve long been identified in the American psyche.

Bahrani was inspired to shift the focus of At Any Price, a new Dennis Quaid-Zac Efron drama that opens this week in theaters, from an investigation into the food we consume to an examination of the intense competition that’s sprung up among farmers driven by such mantras as “expand or die.”

At its core, At Any Price is a story about Henry (Quaid), a father who wants to have one of his sons (Efron, Patrick Stevens) inherit the family business of seed sales. Neither son is interested, having seen the man the business has turned their pops into.

“Suddenly, it’s not should I cheat? It’s: I have to cheat or I will be killed. Expand or die. I found that to be very disturbing.”

The movie turns into a rousing thriller once the family farm comes under investigation for reusing GMO seeds, similar to charges that were leveled against Roush in Food, Inc. by the conglomerate Monsanto.

Henry resorts to more and more desperate measures to protect his business.

Bahrani is quick to point out he didn’t base the film on Roush’s experience, and he has heightened the stress on farmers for dramatic effect. But his changes weren’t to dilute what he believes is really going on in the heartland.

“All the farmers I met were good-hearted, warm people. There was a value system that has remained very traditional,” Bahrani tells TakePart. “At the same time, these philosophies of ‘Expand or Die’ were adding massive amounts of pressure in their lives and causing them to behave in ways they had not behaved before, which was neighbor against neighbor instead of neighbor helping neighbor.”

“This seemed to be a reflection of what was going on in the world and in the country,” says Bahrani. “When Walmart shows up, and it knocks Main Street out of business, that changes how we think and feel and how we behave to one another. When Wall Street smashes up the world in the global economy and is rewarded for illegal practices, that alters how we think we should be behaving. Suddenly, it’s not should I cheat? It’s: I have to cheat or I will be killed. Expand or die. I found that to be very disturbing.”

Can America’s traditional values survive when family businesses are forced into corporate competitiveness? Talk it through in COMMENTS.