VENICE, Italy – Director Ramin Bahrani's new film "At Any Price" functions on two levels: a drama about a family farm's future set among Iowa's lush cornfields or a sweeping commentary about the economic pressures of big agribusiness.
The second read raises very stark questions about how far people will go to protect their way of life, and, by extension, their families.
The movie, which premiers in competition at the Venice Film Festival, stars Dennis Quaid as, Henry Whipple, a fourth-generation farmer faced with the dilemma "expand or die" and his second son, Dean, played by Zac Efron, who sees his future behind the wheel of a race car, not a tractor.
"I really wanted to make a film that any audience could enjoy," Bahrani said in an interview Friday before the premiere. "You can really get wrapped up in the emotions of the characters and the stories. And if they don't want to have the conversation about the economics, society, the politics or the food, they don't have to."
In the film, Quaid's Whipple is cheating on both his wife, with former cheerleader Meredith played by Heather Graham, and on the big genetically modified seed company that supplies him by illegally cleaning seeds to resell. The story is driven by the question of whether he comes clean or covers up — but the moral dilemma presented at the end is much darker.
For Efron, the role was a bit of a risk. His character is rooted in his role as town heart-throb, but with an edge and the kind of youthful temper than can alter a life's course. No one will be surprised to see Efron breaking the heart of his teenage girlfriend, played by Hallie Elizabeth Newton, but it is more menacing that it is in a tryst with his father's mistress.
Efron, who came from a small town in Northern California, said he could relate to his character's ambition to move on to bigger things in life.
"My race car was theater. That was my ticket out," Efron said.
The movie vividly evokes three American institutions: country, church and family. But it doesn't leave viewers with an entirely wholesome picture of small town life or of the state of the American dream.
"I spent a lot of time in GPS-controlled air conditioned tractors with farmers And it became like a therapy session where they would tell me their stories. And yes, some of their stories were about infidelity," Bahrani said.
"And in small towns everybody knows. But you're going to do what? Get divorced and marry who? The town had 500 people in it. You had to stick with the family. No matter what, you had to stick with the family.'"
Zeroing in on rural America, Bahrani shows the crowd at a race track singing the national anthem in its entirety, which he said was inspired by Robert Altman's "Nashville" as a way to connect all the characters in one space.
"And to do it in a subversive way," said Bahrani, who was raised in North Carolina by Iranian parents who moved to the United States in 1968. "I mean, the man is guilty, cheating on his wife, and they're standing arm-in-arm. He's a competitive killer and he's saluting."
While Bahrani has taken on environmental issues in the short film "Plastic Bag," this movie, which will also show this week at the Telluride film festival in Colorado, does not take a stand on genetically altered crops. It does, however, raise other socio-economic questions.
Bahrani said he was inspired by the European financial crisis and the U.S. housing bubble to look at the personal toll that economic crises bring and how aggressive people will get in competition — a question Henry and his son answer at the end of the film.
"People are dancing on top of graves. And those graves are us," Bahrani said.