There is a touch — though, sadly, only a touch — of Willy Loman about Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), the egotistical salesman at the center of At Any Price, the fifth feature from director Ramin Bahrani. Society is moving away from Whipple and Sons, the corn seed business built by Henry’s father and which he hopes to pass along to his absent son Grant, or at least to Dean (Zac Efron), his younger and less-favored child, whose passion lies more in car racing than in seed sales. The drama contained herein is a pale imitation of Death of a Salesman and countless other books, plays, and movies since the dawn of human civilization: a father wants his son to conform to his image; a son yearns, impossibly, for both his father’s approval and his own independence.
Threaded through this familiar plot in At Any Price is the intangible, heady idea of the American dream, something that Arthur Miller, in 1949, believed was dying, or perhaps had never existed in the first place outside of the imaginations of those at the bottom of the ladder who needed to believe they could reach the top. Henry’s father, a vague specter in the film, built his own business, and he built it on the land, on the sweeping plains of middle America. Even though he tells his son not to romanticize the past, the movie seems firmly couched in Henry’s viewpoint on this matter, at least, if not others. The corn seeds he sells are so genetically engineered that the company he works for actually owns the genetic code embedded in their DNA: as he mournfully tells Dean’s girlfriend — inexplicably shoehorned into his door-to-door salesman operation — these companies have “copyrighted life.”
Where has the old America gone, the movie seems to ask — and what are we left with in its absence? In another era — or perhaps in an Annie Proulx story —Dean would not have been a race car driver but a rodeo tramp, and it’s hard not to think, watching the film unwind, that his driving, though suspenseful, lacks the raw physical beauty and danger that comes from watching a man hanging onto a bucking bull for dear life. Both are misguided endeavors, of course, leading to nothing but the slim possibility of some cash and the much higher probability of serious bodily harm. But there is no sense of this in the film itself, which is almost awe-spiringly lacking in self-awareness or irony. Dean’s dream — a stupid dream but an understandable one, as are most dreams couched in the pursuit of an adrenaline rush — is presented simply and seriously and utterly without depth. In this respect, regrettably, it reflects the movie as a whole.
At Any Price is almost bafflingly awful — so awful that it almost comes back around to being impressive, very much in spite of itself. Other people have done what Bahrani is trying to do, and have done so with far greater success — most notably, perhaps, Miller and Proulx, and recently Denis Johnson, in his rapturously received novella Train Dreams. The America depicted in the movie exists, but only in select places: it is certainly not the America I know. I could not help but wonder at the uniform whiteness of the characters: I do not think I saw a single person of color onscreen, even in the background. I don’t believe that diversity is a necessary corollary to quality storytelling, but I do not think it can be ignored in a story that is so obviously dealing with — or at least trying to deal with — the idea of America.
The America I live in is a rich and diverse place, where people live crammed into tiny apartments and spill out into cities and subways in the mornings, almost a glut of humanity; I did not recognize the flat farmland and monochromatic cast that made up the Iowa of Bahrani’s film. But I was also raised in America; I imbibed our cultural mythos in just the same way that every child born and raised here does. It is not impossible to feel nostalgia for a time or a place you have never been; we do this all the time. Consider, for instance, this passage from Train Dreams, which describes a place I have never been in the middle of the twentieth century, a time I missed by some forty years:
By now it no longer disturbed him to understand that the valley wouldn’t slowly, eventually resume its condition from before the great fire. Though the signs of destruction were fading, it was a very different place now, with different plants and therefore with different animals. […] He’d been hearing the wolves less and less often, from farther and farther away. The coyotes grew numerous, and the rabbits increasingly scarce. From long stretches of the Moyea River through the burn, the trout had gone.
There is both yearning and acceptance in this passage: a yearning for the old things, the things that the protagonist knew that will die with his memories, and an understanding that you cannot stop the world from turning and changing. There is something terribly sad about the industrialization of agriculture in America, at the idea that you have to “get big or get out,” and thereby force out the small farmers, the men and women whose lives have been in the land for decades, and whose parents and grandparents grew on and cared for that same land. But there is nothing sad about the America of segregation and disenfranchisement and prejudice dying out: that America, we can all do without. Bahrani’s film engages with none of the complexities of the social change that has marked the past fifty years of American history: his vision of America is bizarrely flat, limited in scope, and outright alienating to watch.
This would, perhaps, be more excusable if the people populating this peculiar world were more compelling, but they, too, seem to yield to a sentimental idea of humanity that bears little resemblance to the humanity I know. Henry changes little during the movie, but somehow manages to win back Dean’s affection, and the movie ends on a joyous celebration of Dean as the future of Whipple and Sons. Nothing has changed here, not globally or locally. And despite Henry’s personal and professional corruption and a catastrophic incident resulting from Dean’s casual violence, Bahrani seems to want us to appreciate this, to understand the Whipples’ continuing legacy as essentially positive. Ethical and societal concerns are secondary, in this universe, to the preservation of the family, which reigns supreme.
When I left the theater, feeling quite sour — I have not even touched on the film’s artless direction, its appalling dialogue, or its troubling treatment of women — I found myself thinking about the ending of Death of a Salesman, which I saw on Broadway last spring. There is no reconciliation between father in son in that play: the father cannot see the son, and the son refuses to succumb to the fantasy of the father. It is harsh and painful and real, and its vision of America is somehow both aggressively brutal and achingly nostalgic. I thought of Andrew Garfield sobbing onstage, begging Philip Seymour Hoffman to release him:
Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop. Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it any more. I’m just what I am, that’s all. […] Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?