In his new film, the social drama At Any Price, director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani examines how the transformation of food into intellectual property through seed patents has corrupted, impoverished, or dissolved the American family farm. As with the Iranian-American director’s previous films (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), At Any Price boasts a wealth of lived-in details, from Dennis Quaid’s dad jeans to the dirt-streaked ATVs its rural characters hop on to get from one end of their property to the other. Jarringly and disappointingly, then, Bahrani explores this radically modern corporate-scape through an archaic narrative about an Oedipal struggle between father (Quaid) and son (Zac Efron).
At Any Price arrives on the heels of another overwrought père-fils melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance’s follow-up to his debut Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as a pair of young fathers who briefly cross paths, only for their teenage sons to suffer the consequences of that fleeting but catastrophic meeting many years later. Price and Pines are the latest entrants to a subgenre of father-son narratives preoccupied with questions of legacy and inheritance set in contemporary times, a genus of stories that share a not-so-distant ancestor in Hamlet and that arguably reached its cinematic apex in The Godfather.
The appeal of father-son narratives is obvious and manifold. It’s a capacious frame that can hold many different types of stories at once: about family ties and honor, about psychosexual needs and conflicts, about clashes between tradition and modernity, duty and desire. It’s that very multiplicity of thematic echoes, not to mention allusive reverberations, that make the modern father-son melodrama feel so grand on the one hand — and so grandiose, antiquated, and irrelevant on the other. (Also, it’s a chance to double the demographic reach by casting a beloved old actor and a hot young one.)
Pines and Price could have avoided those latter qualities had they not borrowed Aristotle’s conception of women as empty vessels through which homunculi — i.e., sons in beta mode — pass through. (Inadvertently or not, Beyond the Pines drives this point home by casting Dane DeHaan, who doesn’t look remotely Latino, as Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes’s son.) But then they’d have to be very different movies, since the assumption of any père-fils narrative is that women don’t matter. Men drive the story, while mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and wives are reduced to obstacles, status symbols, or occasionally, as with Kim Dickens in At Any Price, a mom ex machina. Female characters with agency are already rare in Hollywood, of course, but father-son stories exclude women by design.
It’s ironic, then, that such profoundly un-nuanced narratives are routinely commended as “Shakespearean” — a term ascribed to both Price and Pines by many critics. British colonists of centuries past brought copies of Macbeth and The Tempest into Indian and African classrooms, decreeing that the 16th-century man in the flattened dog-cone collar and shoulder ruffles had a uniquely universal and enduring worldview that the Queen’s new subjects should adopt to civilize themselves. That myth of Shakespeare’s universal relevance persists to this day, which is why even the Bard’s most dusty or offensive plays, like the cross-dressing romance Twelfth Night or the patently misogynistic Taming of the Shrew, still get updated to contemporary settings.
In the same way that British culture was overprized by Victorian colonial administrators for its Shakespearean influence, father-son narratives seem to be similarly privileged by critics for their debt to Hamlet. However flawed the knockoff, the Bard brand appears to automatically confer father-son dramas with greater “ambition” than stories about other kinds of relationships, while forgiving, at least to a certain extent, other equally Shakespearean elements like credibility-straining plot twists, overdetermined characterization, and artificially inflated emotional stakes. More than a decade after its release, the chintziness of Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s “Hamlet in America,” still rankles, and Steven Spielberg’s and Wes Anderson’s seemingly incurable daddy issues continue to limit their work.
But it’s a particular shame that Cianfrance and Bahrani — two filmmakers who excel at the intimate and the naturalistic — have been bamboozled into believing that their arrival at the gates of mainstream cinema need be heralded by Shakespeare-lite bombast and a rejection of the quieter, grittier work that got them there in the first place.
In an industry already crowded with fanciful impossibilities like talking animals, superheroes, and Tom Cruise characters, there’s a much greater, rarer accomplishment to be had in creating the kind of films they’d been already making, interesting stories about realistic people with realistic problems. Ambition needn’t be automatically assigned to remakes of a play we’re all familiar with, but perhaps it should be redefined, especially for male screenwriters and directors, as creating new stories with believable female characters — a project Cianfrance achieved once in Blue Valentine and Bahrani never attempted before.