Congress should ban advertising that preys upon children, it should stop subsidizing dead-end jobs, it should pass tougher food safety laws, it should protect American workers from serious harm, it should fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power. Congress should do all those things, but it isn’t likely to do any of them soon. The political influence of the fast food industry and its agribusiness suppliers makes a discussion of what Congress should do largely academic. The fast food industry spends millions of dollar every year on lobbying and billions on mass marketing. The wealth and power of the major chains make them seem impossible to defeat.
— Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation
Stumbling across the border from Mexico to California, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), along with her sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) and boyfriend Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), looks forward to a new life. Whatever traumas afflicted her back home, she embraces the possibilities of El Norte. No matter the desert heat or the hard ground she must traverse to escape her past: she believes in the promise of a new life, a belief at once underlined and mocked by their imminent employment in Colorado. Little do they know that their focus will be death, not life.
Sylvia’s story — her eventual employment by a slaughterhouse that goes by the name of Uniglobe — is only one facet of Fast Food Nation, Richard Linklater’s loosely connected set of plots fictionalized and adaptated from Eric Schlosser’s 2001 exposé of McDonald’s corrupt practices. Much as Moreno’s exquisite face bore witness to the abuses of the drug trade in Maria Full of Grace, here Sylvia is increasingly fatigued and horrified by the indignities and illegalities of the meatpacking industry. Unabashedly didactic, Linklater’s movie points out the cruel lot of immigrant laborers without rights, employed by the beef-supplier for Mickey’s, “Home of the Big One.”
At the same time, more or less, that Sylvia, Raul, and Coco are riding in the back of Benny’s (Luis Guzmán) van from the border to the fictional Cody, Colorado, a Mickey’s marketer named Don (Greg Kinnear) is taste-testing a new “Caribbean” flavor, chatting with the lab tech, pleased with the product. With a new mortgage and a family in Southern California, Don also believes in his future. The guy who came up with the “Big One” concept, he’s self-confident and vaguely glib, on a track to well-paying management when he gets the word. Recent reports on the Cody slaughterhouse indicate that “There is shit in the meat.”
At first surprised by the news, Don is informed by his white-haired boss that he’s got to fly to Cody and check out the report, get a firsthand view of working conditions and meat contaminations. Aspiring to promotions down the road, Don believes the problem can be fixed: “Marketing 101,” he jokes, “Don’t kill the customer.” Arriving in Colorado, Don introduces himself to the counter girl at the local Mickey’s, Amber (Ashley Johnson). She’s sweet and straightforward, also self-confident. She knows her part-time job, wearing a silly cap and standing under fluorescent lights, is only temporary, as she too, is en route to a better future. Amber points Don toward Uniglobe, home of no future.
Don’s tour of the facility — all white lab coats and workers in hairnets — leaves him believing the process is fine, maybe a few tweaks will address the problems listed in the troubling report. Just because he’s a good guy, he extends his effort, seeking out two veterans of the business, frustrated rancher Rudy (Kris Kristofferson) and disillusioned cattle supplier Harry (Bruce Willis). Rudy asks whether Don’s tour included a look at the kill floor, and when Don says he’s not sure, Rudy grimaces: “You’d remember. Did you see a cow’s head cut off?” he asks. “Were you walking ankle-deep in blood?” Gee, Don looks aghast, no. And with that Rudy offers up his housekeeper to testify about the conditions at the plant (her brother being an erstwhile employee). The conditions are so bad Rudy won’t sell his cows to Uniglobe: workers lose limbs in cutting devices, meat is contaminated with fat, intestinal contents, blood, and dirt. “It’s about a machine that’s taken over this country,” intones Rudy, “Like something out of science fiction.”
Don leaves Rudy’s place stunned, and determined to change things. And then he sits down with Harry, who sets him straight on his own powerlessness. Though he says he admires the Mexican labor force (“Nobody’s making these people come up here. I admit, these people, they’re hard workers”), Harry also pronounces the movie’s overriding truism, both philosophical and cynical: “Most people don’t like to be told what’s best for them,” he says. That would include corporate executives as well as fast food eaters. And so, Harry concludes, leaning back as he eyes Don across the table, accept the Big One’s mythology of freedom, and just go along.
Don’s discoveries — of conditions for workers as well as his own condition — are disheartening, but he can go home to L.A., where he’ll keep up with the house payments. This is emphatically not the case for the plant workers. At first, Sylvia refuses to work at the plant (instead, she takes a job at as a hotel maid), and watches helplessly as Coco and Raul both succumb to drug addiction; their jobs are so miserable, the film contends, that they become desperate to survive the brutality and tedium (Coco is helped along by floor manager Mike [Bobby Cannavale], who notoriously beds and supplies drugs to his “fresh meat” female employees, before he discards them).
Also bored and angry, the counter kids at the Mickey’s near the plant find their own forms of resistance. Brian (Paul Dano) spits in the obnoxious customers’ orders, but Amber begins to research the production process. She’s inspired in part by her mother Cindy (Patricia Arquette) and Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke), old college “lefties” who regale her with stories of student protests and still-clung-to ideals. “I’m all right with what I’m doing,” says the cabinetmaker Pete, “But I’m really okay with what I’m not doing,” that is, he’s not “sold out” to some corporate behemoth. Quitting her job at Mickey’s on the basis of her newfound principle, Amber finds new friends among college-aged eco-activists (one played, serviceably, by Avril Lavigne). But for all their solemn energy, they can’t slow down the system. The futility of their efforts is marked by a lengthy, frustrating scene where they try to free a herd of cattle, who won’t leave through the open gate: they’re cattle and they do exactly what cattle do.
Fast Food Nation doesn’t end well, but it does end powerfully. As Sylvia at last gives in and takes a job on the killing floor, she sees for the first time — and the camera shows explicitly — what she’s been hearing about since she arrived in the U.S. It is a gruesome, unforgettable sight, and she, standing in for the rest of us, is suitably appalled.