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Monday, May 20, 2013

At Any Price

Dennis Quaid’s harvest of tragedy

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In At Any Price, Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who makes most of his income representing Liberty Seeds, the monolithic maker of genetically modified seeds. The glad-handing Henry is a rural Willy Loman with an inflatable smile, a can-(and will)-do-anything attitude and a pocketful of homey sayings. Proud of being the top Liberty salesman in seven Iowa counties, Henry is in danger of losing his sons and his wife to his obsessive drive for success. He cuts corners. Liberty is investigating him for doing what farmers have done since before the Mesopotamians: saving seeds for the following season, which is ruled a contract violation by U.S. courts.

Quaid plays his role with such a persistently pop-eyed expression that he drags Henry close to caricature; in contrast to the naturalism of the supporting cast, including Zac Efron as Henry’s son, Dean, Quaid stands out like a red circle on a white page. But At Any Price captures its flat, sun-baked cornfield setting, populated by increasing desperate family farmers and disaffected youth who escape into dirt track NASCAR dreams. “Expand or die” is the message of an agriculturalist speaking to the farmers. “Get big or get out.”

Henry is a little man whose big thoughts are molded not only by the ideology of the market economy but of the market society. Profit is his only value—aside from a fierce, if unreflective, devotion to family and the acreage his ancestors have farmed for generations. But the contract he signed with the ironically named Liberty Seeds may defeat him. “These guys didn’t just copyright movies,” he says in an epiphany moment. “They copyrighted life.” Henry’s cartoon visage falls, revealing a man trapped in a tragedy.