At Any Price: A Study in Discontentment

Review of At Any Price, Directed by Ramin Bahrani

Profoundly American and profoundly disturbing, At Any Price, the newest release by acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop), strikes at the heart of our enterprise and reveals the broken souls drifting along this cycle of greed. The Whipple family is steeped in Iowa’s agriculture business, which must “expand or die.” In one sense, the Whipples and their neighboring farmers are required to play this game of economies of scale, but Bahrani takes it further and indicts the American conscience of letting an agricultural economy driven by greed take root in the soul of our nation.

The themes of the film collapse on one another. At the broadest level, the United States engulfs this film and permeates it through and through. Wading in this Americana, we confront the father-son relationship in all its sinful glory. And through this confrontation, we truly understand Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), our quintessential American farmer. The thread weaving through these interrelated themes is greed.

For the sake of my meditation (that’s what this is essentially) on At Any Price, the plotline will not be explained until section two, where I consider the father-son relationship.

I. America Adrift

The unashamedly American essence of At Any Price is distilled in a scene before a “figure eight” race is about to begin. Each car carries the U.S. flag, snapping in the air as the drivers cruise in single file, to the music of the anthem. The audience stands at attention, right hand over heart, singing the words in their own unique voices (some tone deaf). Unlike most films which focus on the players on the field, or in this case the drivers, Bahrani focuses on individual members of the audience, while the anthem acts as background music. The anthem takes on an almost haunting nature, as if saying, this film is about America in all its virtue and vice.

At Any Price features the American agriculture economy where farms get increasingly larger as tracts of land are absorbed. Farming is mechanized, and genetically modified crops (GMCs) are king.

Henry Whipple is nostalgic for the old days when farming was a mix of crops and animals and things were done with your own hands in the dirt—a sentiment that would make Wendell Berry proud. Henry’s father, Cliff Whipple, is quick to remind him of the back-breaking labor that goes hand-in-hand with such a naive vision of an illusory golden era of agriculture. More concretely, Cliff is glad to have GPS-directed tractors. In the popular imagination, the United States is unique in the way it practices agriculture, with the machines and the oligopolies, on cropland that stretches to the horizon. Big agriculture is a pillar of the American economy and the American enterprise.

Along with the mechanization of agriculture came the revolution of GMCs. At Any Price is not a documentary nor is it an education film per se, so the whole controversy behind GMCs is largely left alone. Bahrani, however, does provide enough information for the viewers to understand the basic legal issues. When farmers use GMCs, they do not wash the seeds produced by the crops and use them the next season, as was the case in the past. Instead, farmers must purchase a new batch from the company, which has expended millions of dollars to research and develop these superior crops. Farmers are not allowed to reuse and not allowed to sell. An informative documentary on this is Food, Inc., which discusses genetically modified food in general, both meats and crops (the documentary is anti-GM food, and is available on Netflix).

So the context is the United States. We have agriculture writ large across the screen, and we also have Henry’s son, Dean (Zac Efron), who wants to leave the farming life and go into car racing, which is another American cultural icon. Bahrani does a masterful job introducing us to the Whipple family as integrated into this American fabric of life. There is a seamless unity between the characters and their backdrop and we can get lost in the concepts being thrown around when it comes to the way agriculture is done nowadays, if you are an urbanite like myself with a simplistic view about farming.

II. Like Father, Like Son

As in the past, there is an inheritance aspect to agriculture. Cliff Whipple passed down a successful farm to Henry Whipple. Now it’s Henry Whipple’s turn to expand the business, get more customers, and buy more land, so that when he hands it over to his son, the inheritance is better than when he got it. And it is at this transition, between Henry Whipple and his son Dean that we find ourselves.

The storyline is not easy to summarize because its richness is found in the relationships, and relationships are messy. Henry intends to hand off the family business to his elder son, Grant, who has left for college. Grant pursues other dreams and spends most of the film studying abroad in Argentina, which leaves Dean, the younger son. But Dean hopes to get out of Iowa, forsake farming, and race cars, and had assumed that he’d escaped such an inheritance since that burden fell to Grant. Therein lies the conflict.

(SPOILERS below until end of section)

Henry is unsatisfied. In his work, Henry’s in constant competition with Jim Johnson, who has a larger clientele and throws more weight in the business community. This goes beyond normal competition, reaching down to Henry’s pride and valuation of his own worth. When Henry learns that a client has decided to buy from Jim Johnson, he is personally distraught while Jim maintains a professional composure. We also learn that Henry violated the rules of Liberty, the GMC company in this drama. Not only did Henry wash seeds and replant them, but he sold them as well. All this out of unhealthy ambition.

In his family, Henry is unsatisfied with his children—Grant and Dean want to leave farming life—and with his wife—he is committing adultery with a woman named Meredith Crown.

Dean, too, is unsatisfied. Dean wants to be a professional race car driver, not a farmer as his father has slated out for him to be after Grant is out of the picture. After being scoped out by a race recruiter, Dean is offered the chance to make it big and take his amateur racing on the dirt tracks to the professional level. Unfortunately, he loses his nerve on the racetrack and fails to perform. Finding no comfort in his family nor in his girlfriend, he turns to alcohol and ends up sleeping with Meredith Crown as well.

There are lots of parallels here, as you can see. For Henry, the desire to make much of himself and make his father proud has led him to take the expansion of his farming enterprise to a personal level that is arguably the manifestation of greed. When Henry’s wife admits to her knowledge of his affair with Meredith, she bemoans the fact that Henry can’t see what he has in front of him. He’s not content.

Like father, like son. Dean, too, is not content. But Dean’s problem is different in that he doesn’t want more of what he already has; he wants something else entirely. This is not necessarily condemnatory in and of itself, just like ambition isn’t wrong inherently. The pitfall comes with Dean’s attitude and motivations, which come out loud and clear in the film. And like his father, his discontentedness bears the fruit of sexual immorality. Though not married, Dean is committed to his girlfriend and violates that mutual agreement of exclusivity. The sins of the father are explicitly visited upon the son, reified by the fact that it’s the same woman—a disturbing fact that underlines the loathsome deed.

But that’s not all. Things spiral out of control when Liberty agents investigate the Whipple farm after receiving a tip that Henry sold washed seeds and enters an even graver level when these agents start testing the Whipple fields for traces of replanted seeds. Dean, suspecting Jim Johnson gave Liberty the tip, gets into a scuffle with Jim Johnson’s son, Dean’s counterpart in this Whipple-Johnson rivalry. This violent wrestling ends when Dean kills the Johnson kid. He commits this murder in a cornfield no less. I could not but help hear the words: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).

Dean perfects what Henry has started. Whipple greed and unhealthy ambition has led to death.

III. The Man Has Lost His Way

Henry Whipple is an ordinary man. He’s not an agricultural heavyweight like Jim Johnson. He has two sons, a wife, a sizable farm. But this does not stop him from going to extraordinary lengths to seize what he believes will satisfy him. He’s an ordinary man with extraordinary appetites. The appetite for more land, more clients, more sex.

The ending of the film is debatable. There is a tension in the air. Dean’s crime is never discovered. Henry wins back a former client that was lost to the Johnsons. The 12th annual Whipple customer appreciation day goes without a hitch. And in his closing speech at that appreciation day, Henry proclaims himself to be a happy man. But is he?

We are left with an unsettling image of Henry looking downcast, furrow-browed and troubled, as he hands the microphone to Dean as his successor. Though the final scene is of them dancing, with the sun streaming through the trees, I can’t help but think that Bahrani has left us feeling the lack of resolution to encourage soul searching. Is this the America that we know? Is this the America that actually is?

IV. Greed as Virtue?

Is the harnessing of greed what makes capitalism great? That’s a great question for another day, but it tugs at the fibers of At Any Price. Where is the line between ambition and greed? What happens when capitalism ceases to be merely an economic philosophy and becomes a social philosophy as well?

My concluding thoughts will be based on just one scene. Henry Whipple and Jim Johnson are sitting in a diner, sharing coffee. Perhaps due to gnawing guilt, Henry informs Jim Johnson that he has won back a client previously lost to Jim, which makes Henry the top dog in that county again. Henry offers to give that client back to Jim, but Jim resolutely says that that was inappropriate. Business was business and Henry won the client through his diligence, whereas Jim neglected to follow-up with this particular client. Henry is speechless. This makes no sense. Jim shows no sense of personal loss at his defeat and is not refusing to take back the client in a pretense of honor hiding pride.

Ambition needs to be rescued (as Dave Harvey argues in Rescuing Ambition). Ambition lies in the realm of common grace and healthy ambition should be affirmed, whether you find this emulated in Paul’s glorious ambition to preach Christ where he had not been named before, lest he build on someone else’s foundation (Romans 15:20), or in Weber’s Protestant ethic or capitalism. But we must never mistake ambition and greed as synonyms.

After this heady meditation, let’s take a breath. Should you watch this film? Yes. Yes. Yes. Bahrani has given us a thought provoking story that both entertains and troubles. Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron deliver excellent performances. At Any Price is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

Kendrick Kuo is pursuing graduate studies in international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He also blogs at The Asian Crescent.


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