Day three in Venice brings Zac Efron's star power to the fore in Rahmin Bharani's At Any Price, while Ulrich Seidl returns with another happy vision of humanity.
Whether in times of jubilation or tragedy, nothing quite epitomises the bulletproof community spirit of smalltown USA quite like a hearty crowd rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. In At Any Price the famous anthem reverberates with patriotic fervour around a stock car derby, where Dean Whipple (Zac Efron) is about to make a huge step towards realising his dream of becoming the next NASCAR sensation.
It’s an occasion of mixed emotions for father Henry (Dennis Quaid), a proud Iowa crop seller who, having already seen his eldest son turn his back on the family business, is desperate for Dean to pick up the reins. Henry epitomises one of the largest crises facing agriculture in America today. In this age of mass-consumption and extensive GMO farming, modest homegrown business like the Whipple’s are being forced to adapt or risk being swallowed up by an industry in flux. It’s time to get big or die, but with no one in line to keep on plowin’ Henry’s prospects look bleak.
Plenty of food for thought here, then. And yet while director Rahmin Bahrani’s corn-fed family drama deals in simple home truths, there’s an unsettling lack of moral fibre at the film’s core. Henry, for example, speaks about the virtues of loyalty and listening yet practices neither, all the while neglecting his responsibilities as a father and husband. Then there’s Dean.
Efron is particularly good as the angsty young son determined to forge his own path and get the hell out of Iowa. Yet too much of the film’s dramatic impetus relies on Dean’s angsty disposition, and his actions often feel irrational. In one scene, he shoots up an auto shop to steal a part, before promising his doting teen girlfriend (Maika Monroe) he’ll never do anything to endanger their love again. Later he shares a steamy moment with his father’s lover (Heather Graham, giving legs to a horribly underdeveloped bit character) in a cornseed silo in a scene that’s as passionless as it sounds. It’s all a bit unnecessary.
Those discretions are merely aperitifs, however, for the film’s pivotal scene, which sees Dean commit a terrible crime that inexplicably goes unpunished (unless you consider a guilty conscience due sentencing, that is). There is a knowing irony in the fact that Dean’s recklessness ultimately forces him to give up his dreams and accept his inheritance, but the fact that it takes such a serious atrocity to put the Whibbles back on top leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Austrian misanthrope Ulrich Seidl is up to his usual tricks in this challenging second installment in his Paradise trilogy. A pitch-black domestic satire that tackles religion and, more closely, the etiquette of worship, Faith stars Maria Hofstatter as a hospital technician named Anna Maria, who decides to take a holiday only to indulge in a spot of door-to-door missionary work.
Anna Maria is as devout as they come; her pristine, minimally furnished home is adorned with Catholic iconography and she is often shown deep in prayer or else repenting her sins by repeatedly flogging herself. With her dark hair bunched tightly into a frigid Miss Trunchbull bob and purposely treading on eggshells to avoid upsetting the Almighty, she is a peculiar character. But we’re never encouraged to deride Anna Maria – neither her appearance nor beliefs. Nor are we pushed to sympathise with her. Instead, Seidl asks that we put our prejudices aside and simply observe this pious creature in her natural suburban habitat.
Just when we start to get accustomed to Anna Maria’s curious routine, however, Seidl reinstates his mischievous intent by introducing a disruptive new character, Anna Maria’s estranged paraplegic Muslim husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh). It’s been two years since the accident that left Nabil in a wheelchair, and it’s in only that time that Anna Maria’s faith has congealed to form an almost monastic shell of self-discipline.
It’s not clear why Nabil has returned, just that he is no longer capable of looking after himself and that his definition of a wife’s duties haven’t changed. Initially it looks as if Anna Maria will pass this stern test of her conviction, but the longer Nabil stays the more their conflict (a faith off, if you will) intensifies and the quicker their relationship deteriorates.
This is a difficult film. There’s no music, the camerawork is agonisingly static at times and Seidl’s framing of the numerous physical conflicts between Anna Maria and Nabil is gruelling to say the least. You’ll wince, laugh and be shocked, sometimes all at once, but Faith is so audaciously tongue-in-cheek it’s unlikely you’ll ever be offended.