American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Ramin Bahrani, the best new American director of recent years, has until now focused on outsiders in this country: A pushcart operator from Pakistan, a Hispanic street orphan in New York, a cab driver from Senegal working in Winston-Salem. NC. His much-awaited new film, "At Any Price," is set in the Iowa heartland and is about two American icons: A family farmer and a race car driver.
This is a brave, layered film that challenges the wisdom of victory at any price. Both of its central characters would slip easily into conventional plot formulas, but Bahrani looks deeply into their souls and finds so much more. He finds a father and a son who are both challenged to question the assumptions on which they have based their lives. Yet this is not a "message picture," its theme is never spelled out, and it communicates by the most effective means, life experience. It evokes elements of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Death of a Salesman," and how it moves from one to the other is subtly persuasive.
Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron star, in performances that both use and challenge their screen personas. Quaid plays Henry Whipple, who farms more than 3,500 acres and also represents the Liberty Seed Co., which sells genetically-modified seeds. He inherited the business from his father and hopes to pass it along to his son, Dean (Efron). Quaid's winning smile is famous in the movies, but never has it been used to better effect than here, where it has a slightly forced, even desperate quality. It's as if he's running for office.
Henry is the kind of man who will attend the funeral of a neighbor, express his genuine sympathy, and then try to buy the rights to the man's land right there at graveside, without missing a beat. He finds himself in trouble with Liberty Seed, and at home — where his older son, Grant, has run away from the family to climb mountains in South America, and Dean would rather be a NASCAR driver than a farmer and salesman. Henry's wife Meredith (Kim Dickens) is a good woman, loyal and patient, and there's much she needs to be patient about.