The American Dream leads most Americans to believe they are entitled to prosperity and success. Some feel they are more entitled to that prosperity and success than others. Some also are more willing to toil for that prosperity and success. If one is handed down prosperity and success, there is an even greater weight to hold up on one’s shoulders, since failure can mean losing everything a family has built from years of hard work and sacrifice.
Iranian-American film director Ramin Bahrani’s fourth feature film, At Any Price, involves characters, who will do whatever it takes to not only win prosperity and success but also to maintain it. It also could be considered a meditation on what the profit motive can do to otherwise decent people.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) runs a farm that is more than 3,000 acres and is a salesman of genetically modified seeds for Liberty Seed Co. in Iowa. He is a quintessential American businessman committed to being number one and maintaining that status. He believes the motto that permeates modern agriculture—”Expand or Die.” And, as a driven businessman, he will go to funerals and make an offer to someone who is grieving so he can expand his control over land in Iowa.
His son, Dean Whipple (Zac Efron), is fairly disgusted with having a father, who actually can justify going to a funeral to try and close a deal. Dean wants to chart a different course than his father and be a race car driver in NASCAR, but Henry, played remarkably by Quaid, would prefer he helped grow the business.
Henry is under threat from rival family farmer, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), who is convincing customers to switch to buying their seeds from him. In Decatur, Iowa, he goes out to schmooze customers he has lost and convince them to be his customers again. For a part of the film, he recruits Cadence Farrow (Maika Monroe), Dean’s girlfriend, to help him, and, as she discovers, there can be a certain amount of thrill in convincing people to become customers. “Your job is like a game,” she says.
As exhilarating as it may be, it is also what tests the morals of people farming land in Iowa. There is a cutthroat element exemplified by a tenant farmer’s decision to have Whipple’s enterprise investigated by Liberty agents for cleaning and reselling patented seeds (the same farmer he solicited at a funeral at the local cemetery).
Seed cleaning is forbidden by Liberty. Iowa farming is said to involve 93% genetically modified seeds in the film. Long gone are the days when seed cleaners could make it in Iowa. If Henry is found to be reselling seeds, the empire his family has built could be lost.
Like every family farmer in the past couple of decades, Henry faced the corporatization of agriculture. He had a choice to stay the same and continue to grow, clean and resell natural seeds or get bigger but prostrate himself to an agribusiness that was swallowing up all the little family farm operations, which made it impossible for smaller family farms to compete. He chose the latter and fully embraced the idea of “Expand or Die,” a truly capitalist American creed that animates the farmers in the film.
Bahrani’s film is driven by the crisis of capitalism affecting all Americans, the pressure everyone is feeling to convince themselves that they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and the lengths an individual or family is willing to go to not fall down any rungs on the class ladder in society.
As Bahrani said in an interview with Scorecard, it deals with the ongoing “economic crisis, which is also a social and moral crisis,” and this “idea that one should keep expanding endlessly, while celebrating growth and stability.” He lived with farmers in Michigan, North Carolina and Iowa, who all told them they lived by the mottos of “Get big or get out” or “Expand or Die.” It is as, Bahrani put it, “What’s good for me should be endlessly bad for you but endlessly good for me.”
He recognizes that this pervades all parts of society, particularly in boardrooms of corporations, major banks and regulatory offices in Washington, DC. People who have power and money “create systems where they can continue to have more and more power and money, and that means that people like Henry Whipple have to resort to corruption to hold onto things. And it creates a feeling in him that he also has to keep expanding, otherwise he will die. Now this could be connected to anyone, to mom and pops who are competing against Wal-Mart.”
“This pressure is felt across the board,” Bahrani finds. “I felt it when I lived with the farmers, [and] they were so welcoming of me. They said, ‘Come live in our home. Come make the movie here.’ They loved their neighbor, at the same time they were prepared to cut them out [to] survive.”
In fact, one could say the choices characters make in the film are more stunning because family farmers are not often presented as corrupt or morally bankrupt people like bankers or corporate executives.
Bahrani’s films are introspective works about the struggle of making it in America. He previously made Man Push Cart (2005), about a Pakistani immigrant struggling to operate a coffee and donut business out of a push cart, which he pulls around in New York City; Chop Shop (2007), about a street orphan, Alejandro, who lives and works out of an auto body shop in Queens, New York; and Goodbye Solo (2008), about a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who befriends an older man from the South who is contemplating suicide.
The immigrant characters in his three prior films show the spirit of individuals, who have it more difficult than those born here but are willing to make sacrifices for a good life in America. This film marks a bit of shift, as the characters are white American farmers with a history in Iowa, who face the struggle of maintaining what they have in a corporate economy. Their “sacrifices,” both material and moral, come from being worried about what will happen if they lose everything, including their “American Dream.”
There is a complexity to the narrative and ambiguity to the film that many big budget movies shy away from incorporating into their plots. It presents no answer to the dilemmas plaguing families in America like the Whipples. However, that is where it derives its power. It shies away from romanticizing the farmers and instead holds up a mirror to tell a human story that reflects what is happening to farmers in the heartland of America today.