Dir. Ramin Bahrani
If you see wide swaths of cornstalks in a Hollywood movie, chances are you’re either watching yet another Superman reboot (Man of Steel opens June 14!), or you’re seeing farmland that’s under some kind of extreme peril, either from floods, droughts or the shady business practices of giant multi-national agriculture conglomerates. As far as Hollywood is concerned, farmers are the last true American patriots, as red, white & blue as any Chevy truck ad. Representatives from Tinseltown don’t care to venture over to the Midwest terribly often but when they do, it tends to bring out the hot-blooded American jingo in ‘em.
Which is why it’s curious that filmmaker Ramin Bahrani — long hailed an indie stalwart after Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo — has chosen the flatlands of Iowa to present his next directorial effort. Along with co-screenwriter Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Bahrani has crafted a mudflap-and-grain melodrama that purports to involve the confounding failure of the American soul in the dusty heartland.
Rahrani, whose previous films have involved no shortage of small, well articulated moments, has gone big swoon here, with compromised fathers and vengeful sons, cuckolded wives, and shady agri-businesses getting cutthroat with the small family farms that used to chalk off the endless rows of green squares throughout the state.
Embodying the conflicted nature of the once-prosperous farmhand, we have Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a loquacious farmer and seed salesman, a little too proud to be the number one seller in seven Iowa counties. Whipple, who has a perpetually cranky back and a habit of popping breath mints at regular intervals, is a born huckster. He glad-hands everyone in town, looking for the sales angle even at the funeral of one of his farming compatriots, and trumpets his reliable success as if he’s done something truly groundbreaking. He’s also running an affair with the former head cheerleader (Heather Graham) of his high school football team, and has resorted to using shady business practices in the past when his damaged reality didn’t quite match up to his imagined glory.
Whipple has two sons, Grant (Patrick Stevens), whom we only see in the opening credits, shot home-movie style, leaving the farm to go to college; and Dean (Zac Efron), a wanna-be NASCAR driver with smoldering eyes and a strong desire to do something — anything — in order to avoid his likely destiny on the family farm.
Whipple, in perpetual motion, afraid to sit still for even a moment to contemplate what he’s done to reach the level of success he’s aspired to, walks bottled up, his hands at his sides in a half-curl, ready either to shake someone’s hand or clench up in a stressed anxiety fist.
One gets the feeling that Bahrani was shooting for a kind of slightly heightened verisimilitude with the film (in the course of things, you’ll find out more than you ever would have wanted to about GMOs, best seed-washing practices, and crazy 8 car races), but with its various stars (and former teen idols) and the somewhat unnatural sheen of overwrought drama, it comes across as an elaborate stab at play-acting. A costume drama, only instead of bustiers and petticoats, the principles are decked out in Levi’s and plaid shirts.
Like a damaged raft on a raging river, the whole thing starts springing leaks the more weight is placed on it. By the time you get to the (obviously still breathing) dead body lying amongst the broken corn stalks near the end, it more than feels as if its totally lost its way, a poor yield on a dubious harvest.