At Any Price is a movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but it fails to leave a mark. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani's fifth feature film is a family drama that combines the desperation of the middle class businessman trying to stay afloat with the hot button issue of genetically modified crops, then throws in a chafing father/son relationship and the everyday disappointments of growing up. Somehow, it's both too much and not enough.
The Whipple family and their problems encapsulates the predicament of Midwestern famers who are driven to desperate measures to stay afloat. This isn't the same homestead that the ancestors of Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) once farmed; it's big biz agriculture, which means Henry's out hustling genetically modified seeds and snatching up land from graveside families of freshly dead farmers. His Glengarry Glen Ross-style exhortations to "Always Be Closing" is emphasized by a sort of sweaty and pathetic performance from Quaid, who manages to be both charming and loathsome.
Naturally, Henry has a favorite son, the athletic and handsome Grant (Patrick Stevens), whom Henry and his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) actually roll out a red carpet for in anticipation of his return. (Surprise: He's more interested in traveling the world than returning to Henry's clutching embrace.) That leaves Dean (Zac Efron) to take over the family business, even though he'd much rather hang out with his sh*tkicker friends and race cars and make out with his hot girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe).
The cinematography is sweeping and beautiful; those amber waves of grain sway hypnotically, lulling us into the sort of complacency that makes it perfectly acceptable to eat food that was tweaked out in a lab. Efron and Quaid are a perfect father and son pair: the Type A aging golden boy versus the fiery-tempered teen who eventually trades his sleeveless T-shirts for a nicely pressed button-up. Of course, dressing like your dad and actually having an affair with his mistress (Heather Graham, in a role as thankless as Dickens') is another. T
The core idea of At Any Price is to put a human face on the changing nature of agriculture, and not just how it affects the food on our shelves but the farmers who've had to change the nature of their livelihood to keep pace. Trying to build a drama around an idea is difficult, especially such a big and political one. The dynamics between Henry and Dean are nothing new or interesting; the only time you really feel the pain of intergenerational disappointment is when Henry meets with his father and you see that it's all a game of trying to live up to a father figure that will never be satisfied.
At Any Price also deals with the shadier nature of the corn business, but it's a dramatic development that lacks the sort of urgency that the title of the movie implies. Although on paper it would seem the stakes are high in At Any Price, documentaries about subsidized farming or GMO crops are far more alarming.
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There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.