Very bad things happen to cattle in Richard Linklater’s FAST FOOD NATION, a feature narrative based on the non-fiction book by Eric Schlosser. In that book, there is a graphic description of how a cow is turned into the burger at the local fast food franchise. The film, co-written by Linklater and Schlosser, is just as graphic. Those aren’t special effects on the screen. It’s a real slaughter house at the climax of the film, just before the caustic joke that ends it. And very, very bad things happen to the people whose lives revolve around the fast-fooding of America, too. By blending fictional characters with hard, cold facts, the realities of corrupt meat packers, minimum-wage drones, and exploited migrant workers take on an emotional edge that isn’t found in the book, as intellectually infurating as that book was. The film takes a documentary-like tone, with the melodrama coming from the system that keeps everyone down, and downing crap-filled meat. It’s all the melodrama that’s necessary.
Crap in many incarnations is the theme of the film, starting with what some plucky college students have found in the star product of Mickey’s, the fictional fast-food franchise that stands in for all the others here. Concerned not that there is fecal matter in the meat, which he probably already knows, but rather that the public will find out about it, the CEO of the company sends his star marketing guy, Don Anderson(Greg Kinnear), on a fact-finding mission to the meat-processing plant in Colorado. It’s a ploy designed to give everyone plausible deniability, except that no one told Don that part. With a firm background in cable sports, he’s a wide-eyed neophyte in the world of fast-food, a personable, decent guy who still goes ga-ga over how the Mickey’s chemists can whip of the authentic taste of grilled meat in a test tube. He’s just one of the audience’s guides to what is wrong with the fast-food economy. The other aspects have their own incarnations that interact tangentially to his. There’s Amber (Ashley Johnson), the high school student to takes Don’s order at the Mickey’s by the meat processor in Colorado, and her co-worker Brian (Paul Dano), who does bad things to the product, sometimes intentionally. Her mother (Patricia Arquette), works at a chain pet store and feels sorry for the puppies cooped up in cages that are barely legal in size, but designed to maximize sales. There’s her brother (Ethan Hawke), a former college activists who succintly explains to his niece the political implications of her Mickey’s uniform. At the plant itself, there are the Mexican sweethearts (Catalina Sandino Morena, Wilmer Valderrama in a first-rate dramatic performance) who’ve made the dangerous border crossing only to face worse at the meat-packing plant where safety is observed more in the breach.
The film covers the issues of the book with a satisfying thoroughness, but where it soars above the print version is in dissecting a corporate system has taken on a life of its own beyond the reach of anyone’s good intentions. While it’s easy to root for Kris Kristofferson’s dissafected rancher who opens Don’s eyes to exactly what is going on at the company plant, the speech given by Mickey’s local purchaser who explains the facts of corporate life to Don is more problematic. As delivered by Bruce Willis, it avoids being didactic because of his everyman personna and matter-of-fact tone. This is not a bad guy. This is a guy who takes the world as it’s presented to him and, to sum it up, the world is full of crap. Turn up the heat high enough, and the bugs are killed, even if the crap containing them remains. By the same token, the protesters of the piece, some well-meaning college kids who plot a demonstration are just as stymied by the system as the Mexican workers who are exploited in every way possible by a foreman (Bobby Canavale) with more than meat-packing on his mind. Politics abound in
FAST FOOD NATION, not stridently, but with an impact that is all the more deadly for the low-key tone as it explains how the exploitation of the average American in this culture is as pervasive as that of the migrants, if less obvious. And while it doesn’t offer answers as such to what it depicts on screen, it does demand that its audience consider how what they see affects them, even if they never patronize fast food franchises. It also demands that its audience make a choice about what it continues to put on its collective plate and in its collective stomach. This is strong stuff, and absolutely essential in keeping the populace at large well-informed. It may even save a few lives.