Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
Classic modern American dramas sometimes come few and far between, but here is the second such film in as many months after "The Place Beyond the Pines". I think the key to their success is that they work first as human stories while ideas and themes thrum beneath the surface, sometimes only revealing themselves more fully in our minds after we leave the theater.
Writer-director and North Carolina native Ramin Bahrani, whose neo-realist style worked so well in his first three features (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) paints on a larger canvas here with the kind of morality play evolving out of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Death of a Salesman" to a large extent, and films like "Breaking Away", "Blue Collar", "Silkwood" and "In the Bedroom" in the way it lives and breathes its specific American milieu so uncannily.
With the southern plains of Illinois working seamlessly as filming locales for Iowa, we enter a community of farming families in present day America, where communities have grown less communal and more tribal. Totally disappearing into his role, Dennis Quaid delivers one of his best performances as Henry Whipple, a character so wholly original that I forgot I was watching a notable Hollywood actor. Henry now controls the family's agribusiness, handed down from his father, working some 3,700 acres as well as being a sales rep of genetically modified corn seeds for the Liberty Seed Co.
Perhaps because we never really see stories about modern farming, it's interesting to watch Henry and his family doing everyday farm duties, and to note how technologically advanced the whole enterprise has become. Part of the fascination with Henry is the way the film observes him wearing different hats, depending on the occasion: we see him as a farmer, a husband, a father, a shrewd and manipulative businessman with his forced politician's grin, and in a couple of key scenes we're reminded he's the son of his father.
Henry's wife Irene is played by Kim Dickens, in her best film role to date. It's a seemingly quiet performance at first, but one that gradually reveals itself to be much more complex than her being simply the farmer's wife. Grant, the eldest of their two sons--and a local college sports hero--appears to be so cheerfully off the grid climbing mountains in South America, communicating only via postcards, that it's as though he's run away more than he's on vacation. Grant's tapped to become the natural inheritor of the Whipple business since their younger son Dean (Zac Efron)--a frequent winner on local racing tracks--has dreams of making it to NASCAR.
For Efron, this marks a free-spirited performance fueled by testosterone and angst after more than a few safe roles. He's a bad boy and the total opposite of his father, though in another sublime character arc like his mother, layers peel away by the end revealing more clearly that Dean is a lot more like his old man than he would ever admit.
I've been careful not to reveal any plot and won't do so here except to report that like a very good novel, it develops gradually through the choices of its characters, making them less like plot details and more like a series of moral crises. There are legal matters that creep up by Liberty over their copyrighted seeds, entangling peripheral relationships with a couple neighbors who begin to figure more prominently in the story in the second half, and the death of one of Jim Johnson's sons, Henry's main competition.
Johnson is played by Clancy Brown, that overlooked but thankfully not under-used character actor with over 200 acting credits to his name, the most recognizable being his part as that hardened prison guard at Shawshank. The body language between him and Henry at a local seminar reveals so much more than what is written on the page, and much later they share a heartrending scene at a diner unlike most you'll experience this year between two grown men.
Rounding out a strong supporting cast are Heather Graham as Meredith, a local woman with an unhealthy appetite for making herself available only to unavailable men who are at their saddest and most pathetic, Bahrani regular Red West (the former Elvis bodyguard-turned-character actor) as Henry's father Cliff, Maika Monroe as Dean's girlfriend Cadence, another great character actor in Chelcie Ross (A Simple Plan, Hoosiers) as Whipple lifelong friend Byron, and an arresting Dan Waller as Larry Brown, a neighboring farmer with a lot less land who falls prey to Henry's selfishness.
Another great scene brings all of the film's main players together at the race track. The way the singing of the Star Spangled Banner is edited reminded me of Robert Altman in the way he'd follow several characters and then show public scenes with everyone having to share the same space. It's a great scene that results in a fierce showdown between Dean and one of the Johnson boys that serves to underline what this movie is all about in the way Henry reacts to the race's result. What is it worth to win at any price? What price is there to be paid in the soul for the notion that victory is no longer enough and only vanquishing someone else is?
I'm moved by films like these that care less about effect and plot and more about people, choices, and how we treat each other. Ramin Bahrani continues to grow as one of America's finest directors in recent years. Michael Simmonds returns as his cinematographer, and where they dealt more with handheld shots in enclosed urban spaces in their first two films and then an American suburb in North Carolina in their third, here they observe their characters' moral dilemmas in the still vastness of the American heartland, where victory at all costs and tribal loyalties appear to be at war with shared responsibilities and shared benefits. This is a great film.