“BEEF. It’s what’s for dinner,” Sam Elliot reminds us from behind his mustache. But what if it were filled with cow feces? Would it still be for dinner? What if that hamburger came from a slaughterhouses that exploited its illegal immigrant workers? Would anyone really care? What if cows do not really die humanely and were sometimes hung up and butchered while they were still conscious? Would that make you think twice about your Big Mac? This is the driving premise of Fast Food Nation the latest film from independent workhorse Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused).
Linklater is a pretty amazing guy. He’s staked out his own corner on the cross streets of Hollywood and Indie and can move effortlessly from studio pictures like The School Of Rock and The Bad News Bears to his two offerings this year, A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation. While Fast Food Nation is not completely successful as a conventional movie, it’s still an interesting picture, both for its message and its flaws. The film is as messy as its subject, which is filled with uneasy contradictions and justifications.
In 2001, Eric Schlosser pulled an Upton Sinclair with the publication of his best-selling non fiction book Fast Food Nation: The Truth Behind the All-American Meal. But while Sinclair’s The Jungle led to major reforms in the early 20th century, Schlosser’s outrage has led to no such reform in the 21st. The junk food addiction may be so widespread that no one dare question their Whopper. Or is it something else that prevents an uproar?
Schlosser and Linklater did not adapt the book into the expected liberal documentary, but as a fictional film that uses the book’s data as its backstory. This is a somewhat controversial decision and, I believe, one of the reasons for the lukewarm critical response the film received upon release. The screenplay is structured as an ensemble piece like Traffic, Crash or Babel, in which most characters never cross paths but are instead linked through the theme. Here, it’s the corrupt economic system that holds them all prisoner.
There are three sets of characters that follow the money from top to bottom: The representatives of the corporations and the cattle suppliers, the teenagers in suburbia who work for those corporations making minimum wage on the front line, and the Mexican immigrants who must scrape by to survive, finding work only in the slaughterhouses. Conditions there are horrific, as a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico learns. Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace), Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) are given a ride across the border by Benny (Luis Guzman) and soon find themselves in Cody to work in the plant. The job is not only disgusting, it’s also labor intensive and extremely dangerous due to the butchering machines. At first, Sylvia refuses to keep working there, quitting and taking a lower paying job as a hotel maid, instead. But circumstances beyond her control bring her back.
Meanwhile, in a local fast food franchise, server Amber (Ashley Johnson) is having a crisis of conscience about whether to continue doing her job or quit and join a local group of eco-terrorists who want to strike a blow at “Big Business” through something more significant than a letter writing campaign. We are swiftly introduced to all of these characters but at first it seems that Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) will be the focal character. He’s the VP of Marketing for a fast food chain coyly called Mickey’s and one of the creators of its primary product, “The Big One”. We meet him in a business meeting that captures a Dr. Strangelove kind of black joviality; the execs coming up with sales slogans that seem to suggest that size does matter. For about the first hour or so, the film focuses on Don’s journey out to Cody, Colorado, on a mission to find out why “The Big One” has such a high level of cow feces in its meat. Because if the public learns about it, that could be bad for business.
Don is presented as the All-American father, husband, and corporate lackey. He seems not the least disturbed when he is testing a series of chemicals that will make their burgers taste like barbecue or their chicken taste more “Southwestern”. On this issue he thinks the chemical mix needs less liquid smoke and more chemically processed lime flavor. On the issue of feces in the burgers, however, he seems to be rather alarmed. In Cody, he learns things that cause him to question the morality of his industry and his own job. Since Don is not someone who wants to think too hard about these things, he finds himself in a bit of a crisis that is unrelieved by the porn he orders for his motel room.
The point of no return is reached during a meeting with Mickey’s bigwig cattle supplier Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis). Between giant bites of a thick cheeseburger, Rydell tells Don he’s got it all wrong. He doesn’t mean that Don doesn’t have the right information, he means that Don has it all wrong and needs to rethink his position. Rydell tells him that, “We all have to eat a little shit, sometimes.”
Don realizes that he’s been sent on a fool’s mission. To report the truth about the meat plant will put his job in jeopardy due to the old boy network between his boss and Rydell. He was always supposed to give a good report back to the home office. Afraid for his own position and the welfare of his family, Don decides to keep his head down and just do his job. It’s here that Linklater and Schlosser do something that is absolutely brilliant. With Don accepting defeat and finding himself swallowed up in the corporate machine, they allow the movie itself to swallow up his character whole. Like Janet Leigh in Psycho, Don’s character disappears completely with more than half a movie left to go. We are left floating among the other characters and their intrigues without the help of Don’s possibly industry shattering fact finding mission. Their struggles seem all the more hopeless, now.
In some ways, the movie is all over the map. There are too many themes, too many characters, too many cameos from anti-establishment figures like Kris Kristofferson who stops the movie dead with a monologue about how the damn machines have taken over. Even the MTV generation has their own spokesperson, Avril Lavigne, in the film as one of the teenage eco-terrorists. The movie doesn’t really work as a ‘movie’. In fact, it fails on almost every level, from its thin characterizations to its occasionally didactic style and lack of melodramatic thrills. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t work as powerful cinema.
This was never intended to be a conventional movie, but more like a personal industrial film illustrating the process that brings the corpse of a cow to your dinner table. There are fantastic scenes and ideas throughout, including the first act of the college activists to free a corral of cattle that simply refuse to “escape” from death row. It’s a bit heavy handed, but the cattle’s refusal to leave their comfort zone – the confines of their corral during an attempted rescue — is still an effective device. But the most powerful scene from a movie standpoint as well as social commentary is Don’s chilling meeting with the cattle baron, Harry Rydell. Bruce Willis is simply incredible in this short scene, portraying a man who sees the moral compass pointing in a somewhat different direction. Willis hasn’t been this good in years, and makes you wish he would consider playing more sinister characters in the future.
The final sequence, however, is easily the most memorable. Georges Franju’s The Blood of the Beasts is referenced here as we are finally led into the “killing room” of the slaughterhouse. The images are as shocking and revolting as you can imagine. Though these are disturbing in an obvious way, like a propaganda film made by vegans and animal right’s activists, it remains disturbing, nonetheless. Not only from the perspective of what mysteries may be found in my Whopper, but also from the violent relationship between humankind and its food. The horror of the slaughterhouse is an unfortunate price to pay to enjoy a hamburger. So is the cruel exploitation of labor. But since I like hamburgers, I also find myself seriously conflicted and perhaps content to remain ignorant. This is the messy point of Fast Food Nation.
The DVD contains a series of flash animation featurettes called “The Meatrix” in which The Matri” is parodied with the idea that we live in a dream world and are unable to wake up to the horrors of our own food. This is fun, but the movie says it all better. There is a “Making of” documentary that presents the usual bland information on the shooting and production as well as a commentary by Linklater and Schlosser. This is a very good extra with the two men talking about all kinds of issues outside of just filmmaking. In all, it’s a decent set of extras for this release.