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“At Any Price”: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid’s Corn Belt thriller

Movies about so-called ordinary people in the American heartland, even when they’re pretty good, tend to be driven by a reflexive and almost guilty sentimentality. Even the hardened, cynical coastal types who make films don’t want to challenge the national myth that life in rural America possesses a realness absent in more metropolitan surroundings. There’s some genuine history behind that myth, in the sense that over the course of the 20th century the nation’s population and economy permanently shifted away from the agrarian republic imagined by the founders, but a great many of us have rural roots in the not-too-distant past. One of my grandfathers was an Irish immigrant, but the other was born in a prairie town I’ve never even visited, to a father who sold Case tractors.

One of the best things about Ramin Bahrani’s bracing farmland thriller “At Any Price” is its refusal to condescend to the Iowa farm family at its center by depicting them as nobler, more innocent and less sophisticated than other people. Many people who see this movie will be understandably focused on Zac Efron’s intense performance as Dean Whipple, the family’s handsome but embittered youngest son who yearns to be a stock-car driver. But for me the breakthrough in “At Any Price” comes from 59-year-old Dennis Quaid, cementing his character-actor renaissance with what may be the nastiest role of his career.

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