Evil plans are an abomination to the Lord, but gracious
words are pure. Those who are greedy for unjust gain
make trouble for their households, but those who hate
bribes will live.
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
Matthew 16:26 NIV
I began my pastoral ministry at a three-church parish in North Dakota where the average farm was 1000 acres. Quite a change for a Hoosier used to thinking that 400 or 500 acres was big. That was many years ago, and now that 1000 acres would not support a farm family with the cost of equipment so high. In At Any Price Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) farms over 3500 acres, yet is still so much in debt that he is constantly trying to enlarge his seed sales and buy more land. “Expand or die” is his motto, and he has no intention of submitting to the latter fate.
Henry’s is not one of those giant agribusiness corporate farms, he being of the third generation to farm the land. His father Cliff (Red West) still alive and all too quick to criticize or heap scorn upon his son’s management, so we quickly surmise that Henry really needs to prove himself to the old man. As large as the farm is, the costs, especially of equipment, are so great that Henry has been selling the genetically modified seed of the Liberty Seed Company for supplemental income. He has been so successful that he can boast that he is “No. 1 salesman” in a multi-county area. But there has been a price to be paid in that, to convince neighbors to buy from him, he has developed an overly warm appearance of deep concern, supported by a smile that looks like it has been painted on. We see this at the graveside service of a farmer. Henry offers his sincere condolences to the son, and then quickly adds an offer to buy the deceased’s 200-acre farm. The son rebuffs this inappropriate offer, but before Henry leaves, grudgingly accepts it, the non-farming family needing the money.
Henry wants the 200 acres as a gift for his eldest son Grant, who has been away serving in the military. He is so much looking forward to the young man to come back that he has bought a red carpet to roll out upon his return. However, it is a postcard, not Grant, who arrives, informing the family that he is in Argentina where he plans to climb a mountain. This is the first of a series of cards sent from that country, making it clear that Grant does not share his father’s dream of returning and becoming a farmer. The disappointed Henry longs for the close relationship that his rival in the seed business, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), has with his son Brad (Ben Marten).
Henry’s family life is indeed complicated. His younger son Dean (Zac Effron) still reluctantly lives at home, but his heart is set on becoming a NASCAR driver. His victories have garnered him a large following at the local dirt track, and he learns that a scout is coming to watch him at the next meet. Henry tries to join in the praise of his son’s latest triumph, but Dean is so resentful of his father’s past neglect that he pushes him away. Irene (Kim Dickens) is Henry’s wife who handles the bookkeeping for their business as well as managing house and garden. She is loyal to a fault, knowing about Henry’s adulterous affair with Meredith (Heather Graham), a woman from the town. As a result she and her husband are growing further apart.
Although Henry would turn on that smile at anyone suggesting he has problems, he is worried that rival farmer and seed salesman Jim Johnson is making inroads in what he regards as his territory. Dean’s girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe), instead of the reluctant son, joins him on one of his sales excursions and succeeds in winning back one of the farmers who had deserted him for Johnson. However, on this trip Henry discovers he has a far greater problem when he stops his car to confront the two men in a car that had been following them. They are investigators for Liberty Seed, sent out after one of Henry’s disgruntled neighbors had reported that he was cleaning and using seed produced by last year’s Liberty seed. If proven, this would be a felony, ruining his business and reputation, because the modified seed is patented. When they demand to be allowed to test his crop, he puts them off, but he knows that the moment of reckoning is approaching.
Then, in an unexpected twist Dean commits a rash act that dwarfs the illegal seed problem. When he calls his father for help, Henry is faced with a crucial decision, one very similar to that faced by Liam Neeson’s character Ben Ryan in the 1994 film Before and After. Out of love and family loyalty Henry follows his son into moral darkness. Ironically, the two come closer together as a result. Irene also, of course, eventually learns what the two have done, and she also must make her own decision.
Few films have shown the complexities of the business side of modern farming as well as director Ramin Bahrani, who also co-wrote the script (with Hallie Elizabeth Newton). Most of us picture a farmer riding atop his tractor with the wind blowing against his straw hat. The North Dakota farmers I came to respect so much complained of the cost of their equipment—$25 K to $50 K—and the high price of maintaining and repairing them. Henry sits in his John Deere’s air-conditioned cab equipped with computerized watering and fertilizing systems. He hardly ever needs to pay attention to where he is going because of his GPS tracker is guiding the huge machine. What a king’s ransom such a machine must cost! And how much have we ever read about the big seed companies prohibiting the use or sale of the produce of their patented corn seed?
By the end of the film Henry is an example of the man who strives for success “at any price.” And sadly his family accompanies him on his downward moral spiral, as well as the up-against it farmer who had turned Henry in for his illegal seed dealing. The man is so desperate to be able to use those 200 acres that Henry had bought at the beginning of the film that he agrees to withdraw his complaint. By this time I was thinking of both men in the light of the avaricious peasant in Tolstoy’s great story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” But then came the movie’s last scene in which Henry and Irene are hosting the annual “Customers’ Appreciation Day” on their farm, which called to mind another film with a similar “happy ending,” at least for the protagonist. The compliments Henry receives and his moral posturing about the rewards of hard work are similar to Judah Rosenthal’s congenially hosting his daughter’s wedding at the end of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Both men have descended into darkness by being willing to pay any price for preserving their status and reputation. The difference seems to be Judah’s total moral blindness (ironical in that he is an eye doctor) and thus no longer bothered by his conscience. Henry, however, may well be troubled. His always at hand smile now seems to have been painted by a very bad artist, especially when he is not “on” with a guest/customer. He does not look like the picture of a man at ease with himself and his lot in life. I suspect that if the pastor of the church he attends were to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool, who also embraced the slogan “Expand or die,” Henry would be squirming in his pew.
Spoilers follow, especially the last question.
1. What do you think of
Henry when you first see him trying to gain the attention of the company rep who has spoken at the gathering that rival Jim Johnson has convened? How does Henry seem to be the classical “divided self” ? Yet how does the casting of the amiable Dennis Qaid make you feel about the character?
2.What traditional themes of the father-son genre do you see in the story? How has Henry apparently related to his sons during the earlier years of making the farm and seed business a success? What impact must his taking on the side job of selling seed have had on his family life?
3. How is Henry somewhat like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman? What illusions does he have?
4. What do you think of Dean and his dream of becoming a NASCAR driver? What is it that prevents this from happening? Do you think this might be a major difference between father and son—that Dean lacks the ruthless drive to get ahead at any price?
5. What kind of a wife is Irene? What do you make of her way of dealing with Henry’s betrayal of her with Meredith? What did you expect her to do when she learned what their son had done?
6. Were you surprised by the results of Dean’s rash act? How does Henry show (and later Irene also) that blood is the major point in his moral decision-making?
7. Were you surprised or upset by the way the story ended? Not the way a film would have ended during the old days of the Hayes Office, is it? Are the filmmakers justifying Henry and Dean, or what? Although Henry is similar to the father in the already mentioned Before and After, what is the major difference in the plots of the films?
8. How might the nature of Henry’s smile at his celebration/party be the important factor in regarding this story as a morality play rather than as another nihilistic Hollywood film showing its protagonist as “getting away with it” ?
9. Think about/discuss how the two introductory Scripture passages apply to the story. What price has Henry paid for his “success” ? Also, as alluded to, check out the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21.
10. A possible 3-film series: over a 3 week period watch and discuss Before and After; At Any Price; and Crimes and Misdemeanors. All of them, but especially the last one dealing with theodicy, will lead to some in depth probing of God and the universe as a moral system, but far more complex than the widespread view of God quickly punishing those who step “out of line