Last night was a first for me. Last night I did not watch the Oscars.
Frankly, I just couldn’t bring myself to care. The Academy Awards have no relevance to my life. They don’t affect my choice of movies one whit. The hype, the red carpet, the fawning, the sniping, it’s like watching a nuclear-powered high school reunion on steroids. Plus, when you boil it down, it’s all about money, money for those at the top–the producers and directors and stars, not the key grip or the clapper-loader–and I grow tired of everything always benefiting those at the top, so I saved myself several hours and gave it all a pass.
So, what did I do on Oscar Night instead?
I watched a movie, of course.
I’ll bet it’s a movie you haven’t heard of, and that’s sad, because it was remarkable.
Ramin Bahrani is a relatively new director and screenwriter (his first full-length film came out in 2000) whose stories usually center around immigrants in America–a Pakistani puschart vendor, a Latino street urchin, or a cabbie from Senegal–but back in 2012 he wrote and directed At Any Price, a drama set in America’s Heartland: Iowa.
Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron play Henry and Dean, a father and son who are at serious loggerheads. Dean, overshadowed by his older brother’s preeminence, rejects his father in just about every way: he does not want to take up the family business (seed sales) or run the family farm, and instead puts his passion into dirt-track, figure-8 racing, aiming for the NASCAR circuit. Henry is a faded high-school quarterback who, despite an oversized ambition and towering self-worth, still can only manage being second best in several areas of his life. He’s a man straddling two worlds: the simpler but laborious family farm life of his youth, and the high-tech, massive, agri-business of today.
Surrounding these two men are a cast of well-written characters. Henry’s main competitor (Clancy Brown) is a strong, self-assured salesman whose quiet confidence stands in sharp contrast to Henry’s near-frenetic smarm. Henry’s father (Red West) is an overbearing patriarch with a keen sense of reality who doesn’t pull punches with his son. Heather Graham plays Meredith, the aging high-school cheerleader who matches Henry pattern, misstep for misstep.
The strongest of this supporting cast, though, is Henry’s wife, Irene (Kim Dickens). Irene is the eye of this familial storm, and though she has the fewest lines in relation to her screen time, she is the one who can boil things down to their essence with a few simple words, such as when she challenges Henry about his affairs: “I love you and everyday you make me feel stupid for doing it.”
In my opinion, this is the performance of Quaid’s career. Rather than Quaid’s usual semi-heroic or romantic lead, Henry is a mess. He has misbehaved his way into serious trouble with his wife (see above) and also with his business (the GMO-patent-wielding Liberty Seed company). He’s a sad man who is cognizant of his own sadness, and his every action reeks with the stink of desperation. It is a brilliant, nuanced, and affecting performance in which we see a man clinging to what he has, only to drop half of it as he scrabbles for more.
Efron’s character is just as damaged, and his actions just as unwise. His anger at his father, at his life, and at the entire world he inhabits drips from him like sweat. Ironically, it is this anger that, building to a crescendo, leads Dean to the film’s turning point where, at a loss, he turns to his father for help.
This isn’t a movie that wraps everything up in a bow. Far from it. It’s a movie about living with your mistakes, and learning from them. But that’s the surface. Beneath that, it’s an examination of the American drive to be Number One, to win at all costs, and to judge everything by the capitalistic yardstick of monetary success. Again, Irene comes up with the thematic statement of the whole movie: “Why can’t you be happy with what’s right in front of you?” To Henry, who regularly blows the horn of his own mediocrity and believes he’s Al Hirt, this is a foreign concept.
Despite their flawed natures, Henry and Dean do learn and grow during this film. They do become better people, but at a cost. The cornfields around them are littered with collateral damage, and families beyond their own feel the pain of their mistakes.
It’s the kind of movie that sticks with you; we went to bed discussing it and when we woke up we discussed it some more.
Go. Watch. Think.