Fast Food Nation opens with a zoom into a sketchy-looking fast-food burger patty. The shot rhymes with one from David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which penetrated into the green grass of small-town America to find all kinds of creepy, crawly activity. But if Blue Velvet suggested there was a dark heart pulsing beneath a happy facade, Fast Food Nation has a much more basic point to make: "There's shit in the meat."
Director Richard Linklater and co-writer Eric Schlosser (who wrote the exposé on which the film is based) convert Schlosser's panorama into a fictional film by creating a cosmos of characters who allow different entry points into the fast-food industry. After the president of barely fictional corporate chain Mickey's receives a report that there's high fecal-bacteria content in his burgers, he sends a marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) to a meat-packing plant in Cody, Colorado, to investigate. Among the employees at the plant are a couple of illegal immigrants (Wilder Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno) dealing with unsafe, unsanitary working conditions. While in town, the exec chats up a teenager (Ashley Johnson) working the counter at the local Mickey's franchise, who is later inspired to eco-activism.
Fast Food Nation climaxes by sneaking onto the "killing floor" of a real slaughterhouse, where the film captures the whole process of killing, disemboweling, skinning, and carving up cattle. It's gruesome, but whether or not you're outraged or inspired to action may be ultimately about the attitude you bring to the movie.
And Fast Food Nation is less of a tract than you might imagine (or maybe than it should be), with Linklater tweaking liberal naiveté when a group of collegiate activists try to "free" a herd of perfectly disinterested cattle and including a ferocious cameo from Bruce Willis as a Mickey's middle-manager who provides the voice of cynical realism.
This is Linklater's second feature this year and second unconventional adaptation, following his animated take on the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. The narrative mode of Fast Food Nation is similar to such heavyweight process movies as Traffic (about drugs) and Syriana (global oil addiction), but Linklater and Schlosser's movie seems oddly anemic by comparison. For all of his strengths -- and I think Linklater is one of the very best contemporary filmmakers, with a couple of masterpieces to his credit (Dazed & Confused, Beyond Sunset) -- Linklater might be too rambling and genial a director for this material. Fast Food Nation is still highly watchable and highly relevant, but the movie doesn't quite live up to its material.
At its best, Fast Food Nation -- like Schlosser's book -- is about more than just fast food, using the subject as a metaphor for the raging corporatism of American life generally. (One of the most memorable passages in Schlosser's book had nothing to do with the food industry -- it was about how car companies bought up mass-transit systems around the country and shut them down to build more of a demand for automobiles.)
In this sense, the counterpoint to Willis' free-market proselytizing comes in the form of pissed-off rancher Kris Kristofferson, whose cameo provides the movie's conscience. He dresses down Kinnear's corporate enabler, but in a gracious way. No matter how well you sell it, the rancher says, it doesn't change the fact that there's still shit in the meat.
Fast Food Nation
Opens Friday, November 17th
Studio on the Square