I really didn’t feel like seeing Pain & Gain this weekend, but the theater by my house wasn’t showing any other new movies. So I rode my bike downtown to one of those places where they show independent movies. I think they call them film houses or something. I’m glad I went out of my way – even though the concession stand only sold espresso and biscotti when I really wanted an extra large Cherry Coke – because Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price opened this weekend, a pretty powerful story about family, about business, about the American dream.
Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, the current patriarch of the Whipple family farm. It’s the same family farm, but this isn’t the same farming business that Henry’s father or grandfather ever had to deal with. “Expand or Die” we are shown on an overhead projector at a local farmer’s meeting. Big Agro is only getting bigger, and Big Agro’s advice to Whipple and all of the other local Iowa farmers is, “Get big, or get out.”
It’s against this backdrop that the family drama plays out. Whipple has two sons. Grant, the likely scion to the throne, leaves for college but winds up retreating to South America after graduating rather than return home to inherit the family business. Standing next to an actual red carpet that Henry has laid out for his firstborn, realizing that he’s not coming back, his attention turns to his second son Dean, played by Zac Efron.
But Dean is a racecar driver and wants nothing to do with farming. He’s reckless and impulsive, tinged with a more-than-mild criminal streak that manifests strongly in the beginning of the movie and overwhelms toward the end. Henry tries to get closer to Dean. In an effort to lure him to the family business? To be a father and actually support his fledgling racing career?
We never really find out the specifics of Henry’s intentions – he doesn’t even really know what he wants in life himself – but his motives are painted by very broad brushstrokes of a desire to have an unconditional support for his son. How that desire translates to action, how it sometimes fails to live up to the ideal, how it ultimately costs him … everything?
Because we never really find out what everything is. Henry has the farm, but he doesn’t. It’s a family business. It’s his but it’s not, as we kind of glimpse with Henry’s elderly dad’s occasional intervention. He has an idyllic wife and family, and yet it’s plain to everybody that for Henry this isn’t enough. We’re given a taste of Henry’s past as a high school football champion. Similar trophies decorate Grant’s empty bedroom. When Dean wins one at a local race, Henry is shocked that his son is an actual driver. But Dean dismisses his father’s praise, telling him that he wins one every week.
At Any Price is about what motivates us, as members of a family, as parts of the economy, as human beings. Do we chase our dreams or do we succumb to the duties and responsibilities life has preordained for us to shoulder? In an era of “expand or die” how can we be happy with what we have in front of us?
Nobody really gets anything, and nobody gets off clean. There’s aggression, there are consequences, and the only people who aren’t screwing over anybody else are the ones at the bottom, the ones getting screwed so badly they don’t have any power or leverage to inflict harm upon somebody else.
At one point, as Henry laments to his father, wondering why things couldn’t be simple like they were when he was a kid, the old man interrupts, reminding him that farming was backbreaking work, that chemicals and GPS driven trucks and genetically modified seeds are better. And it all made me think of us, as a society, about progress. We have so much, everything’s getting bigger, constantly bigger, and better, there’s no doubt that quality of life has gone up. But at what price are we paying for such comfort? Who’s in charge now? What are they exacting for such luxury? Are we raising kids to chase dreams or to push the status quo, to deny their true natures in favor of the ever-climbing bottom line? Is our exponential rise heading us in the right direction? Is it possible for this giant, hurtling machine to change course even slightly? Or are we merely cogs, playing out our individual dramas, pointlessly, unable to right any wrongs? To expand or to die. Or like the prodigal son, to get big or to get out.