Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Rick Linklater & Eric Schlosser
There’s shit in the meat. Literally. And it’s flavored by scented laboratory chemicals, and, of course, the kids making the sandwiches are spitting in them. Still want to eat hamburgers? Well, Linklater’s just getting started!
Eric Schlosser, along with Linklater, adapated his non-fiction book of the same name, the now classic muckraking, neo-Sinclairian expose of the American fast-food industry, into narrative fiction, comprised of three character-driven stories centered around a not-so-fictitious fast food chain called “Mickey’s”: one involves Greg Kinnear as a corporate honcho; another concerns Wilmer Valderrama and the exceptional Catalina Sandino Moreno as border-crossing, undocumented workers who find employment at a slaughterhouse; and the last finds Ashley Johnson playing an idealistic teenage cashier, er, "associate" who undergoes a socio-political awakening. Basically, according to the film, the burger industry works like this: Mexicans make ‘em, teenagers sell ‘em, and middle-aged, fair-skinned men reap the profits.
Fast Food Nation's central problem is that Linklater is such an old, white man. It's hard to believe he's the same guy who made Slacker, as the scenes centered around the youth are so artificial and hamfisted—one actually propounds, "right now I can't think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act"—especially because they look like Hollywood "teens" more than they look like real kids. Linklater's got just as terrible a handle on Hispanics, as well; the plight of the immigrants in Fast Food Nation, who are relentlessly abused and exploited by the meat-packing plant, their bosses, and the soundtrack, is handled in a terribly melodramatic style, playing out like a telenovela with better film stock. In contrast, however, Kinnear's scenes, as a VP of Marketing on an odyssey to discover how the shit gets into the meat, work exceptionally well. Linklater, and Schlosser from what I can tell, are middle-aged, middle-class, Caucasian males, and they have a good handle on the details of what the experience is like, from pornography in hotel rooms to perky, pesky clerks. It isn't exactly the filmmakers' fault, but the film turns out to be a little over-ambitious.
But fashioning such a contrived and formally mediocre movie may ultimately work in the filmmakers', and the film's, favor, since that's what American audiences are used to, and generally what they expect from a movie. Fast Food Nation's failures as a piece of filmmaking are offset somewhat, for me, by its noble thematic intentions. While it could’ve worked better as a freeform indie ramble less concerned with histrionically tackling "all sides of the issue", its more conservative, by-the-books approach—even if it doesn’t always work—has the potential to attract a larger, more mainstream audience who should see the film for its message; he may just yet reach those who aren’t already singing in the choir. It's Fast Food Nation for Dummies.
And after all, though it has its weaknesses, it’s not an altogether irredeemable movie-it even has a share of great moments, such as when tears fall from Moreno’s eyes as she watches cattle intestines slide down a conveyor belt (less literal than metaphoric), or the allegorical scene in which some college fauxradicals cut down a fence to free the slated-for-slaughter cattle within. (The cows don’t budge.) Regardless of its shortcomings, those who need to see it ought to; as Bruce Willis, in a cameo, puts it, “we all have to eat a little shit from time to time.”
Despite Linklater’s vegetarian ethos, Fast Food Nation doesn’t argue for an end to meat eating period so much as it argues that Americans ought to refrain from eating industrial, factory-farmed meat; it’s an approach more philosophical than sermonic. That is, moreso than stopping the merciless slaughter of animals—though that’s important—the filmmakers argue that Americans need to reclaim the moral and spiritual core that they've surrendered, of which the prevalence of the fast food industry, and the tacit approval of its practices, is indicative, or symptomatic. The fast food industry doesn't just hurt animals but people, too, and not just illegal immigrants but the whole collective national character; the footage near the film's end of the killing floor is to be understood figuratively as well as literally. (You are what you eat.) After all, the country's in trouble, as the film points out: earthen land is paved over (what else is new?) as ranches are transformed into exurbs; animals and human beings are trampled and debased; and the spectre of methamphetamine's extirpation lurks in every corner. (Just to cite a few problems.) Kris Kristofferson, in a cameo as a rancher, gets to deliver the film’s thesis line: “this ain’t about good people vs. bad people, it’s about the machine that’s taking over this country.” Or, more bluntly America, it’s about the fact that there’s shit in your meat.