Michael Koresky on Fast Food Nation
Everything about Richard Linklater‘s terrific movie Fast Food Nation (2006) is something of a red herring. A film about huge subjects writ tiny, this freeform fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser‘s best-selling nonfiction exposé of the meat and processed food industries is not really about the meat at all. It’s a survey of the current culture: big, sprawling, and endlessly frightening, told via the minutiae of everyday life, as it’s lived in one Nowheresville Colorado town.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to followers of Linklater’s extraordinary career. In a sense, the Texan director’s films are never about what they’re about. Or to put it more vividly, perhaps, they confound typical dramatization, even as they appear to grapple with recognizable subjects. Thus, his debut Slacker (1991) isn’t really a generation X-ray at all, despite its wayward title, but rather more of a sketch of universal existentialism; it’s site-specific (it’s still cinema’s most authentic depiction of the bustling hive of open minds that is Austin) but all-encompassing, and it remains a benchmark of Nineties American independent cinema not because it so brilliantly captures a time and place but because it’s profoundly engaged with its crazy quilt of philosophical voices—there’s literally something for everyone in it. Dazed and Confused (1993), his studio-financed disaster turned instant cult classic, is hardly the kitschy, nostalgia-drenched look back at those extraterrestrials known as Kids of the Seventies that its promotional material misguidedly promised, but rather a poignant, and almost alienatingly casual evocation of directionless youth—its painted-on bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyes, and clacking bead necklaces are functional rather than symbolic. And Linklater’s 1995 and 2004 diptych Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, cumulatively his masterwork thus far in his young career, about an American boy falling for a European girl in Vienna and, nine years later, again in Paris, isn’t simply a Brief Encounter for the Kurt Cobain generation, but a deeply spiritual quest for romantic fulfillment that transcends eras as much as it does continents.
Fast Food Nation is reminiscent of those earlier films in style and informality—like them it casually surveys an environment rather than flat-out states a thesis or purpose, and it also drifts around its characters, catching them in seemingly on-the-fly moments rather than engaged in big dramatic dialogues or conversations meant to represent cultural or social shifts. Then again, Fast Food Nation differs greatly from those films in scope. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, as well as SubUrbia (1996), Tape (2001), and Waking Life (2001), all took place over condensed periods, their narratives resolving generally within the course of one day or night. Fast Food Nation on the other hand, follows many characters, segmented in discrete story zones, over an indeterminate number of days, even months. As such it’s easily Linklater’s best film not contained within a limited time frame, and by extension, perhaps maybe his most purely dramatic film to date. So, even though the film remains remarkably laidback by the standards of Hollywood—the films of which are more apt to pummel viewers into submission than engage them into debate—it’s still clearly borne of a subject that has gotten Linklater riled up. So what is it that has rocked him?
There is indeed anger in Fast Food Nation, and the fact that it’s a constant roiling, barely concealed form of anger doesn’t make it any less consequential than if the film were constantly exploding in rage. Usually, this kind of film, showing the “underbelly” of American society, tries to stun audiences into submission. Instead, Linklater gently sways us with the harsh truths of everyday living. It’s telling that he and his screenwriter cite as a major influence Sherwood Anderson‘s intricate, rambling novel Winesburg, Ohio rather than the increasingly mundane Crash-Babel-Traffics of the ever-more-globalized, and ever smaller-minded, movie world. Of course, it’s probably Upton Sinclair’s epochal The Jungle that most viewers will likely rather name as a literary precedent. And apart from the superficial, there are similarities between Linklater and coscreenwriter Schlosser’s film adaptation of Fast Food Nation and Sinclair’s narrative of the downfall and moral and political education of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis: The Jungle was also a work of fiction that used an exposé of the contemporary meat industry as a launching pad to a discussion of grander topics, namely poverty, the meager living and working conditions of the lowest classes, and the corruption of those in positions of power. Above all else, The Jungle is a decrying of the foundations of capitalism itself; the film of Fast Food Nation takes up Sinclair’s mantle, yet miraculously does it, effectively and persuasively, for the first decade of the new century, exactly one hundred years after the publication of Sinclair’s novel.
Fast Food Nation surveys, alternately with sickened passivity and rigorous debate, a firmly entrenched hierarchical system that allows for exploitation right down the line. Greg Kinnear plays Don Henderson, the marketing director for the fictional Mickey’s hamburgers chain, and early in the film he is suitably shocked to find out that there’s been a high count of fecal matter in his company’s prime product. Henderson’s lonesome investigative trip to the Colorado meatpacking plant Uni-Globe intersects with the journey of two work-hungry, illegal Mexican immigrants, Sylvia and Raul (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama), who are also en route to the factory, yet for clearly different reasons altogether; they are given a more clandestine back entry. Meanwhile, caught in the middle of all this is Amber (a phenomenally appealing Ashley Johnson), a studious, regular high-schooler, living in a tiny home with a single mom (Patricia Arquette) and working for low wages at the local Mickey’s. The social and financial repercussions of these three main stories bounce off each other, yet Linklater presents all this not as calamitous, but as sadly routine (late in the film, even the cows don’t want to run free when a gang of naive, sprouting PETAs try and free them from their fences). Despite the occasional pause for polemic (Ethan Hawke‘s delightful small role as Amber’s rollicking, free-thinking uncle, goes a long way to bringing Fast Food Nation back to pontificating Linklater-land), the director lets this all play out with casual outrage.
Fast Food Nation is a film about shit, but it refrains ultimately from rubbing our faces in it. There’s a brilliant scene in which Don visits a rancher, Rudy, played regally by Kris Kristofferson, who once supplied cattle to the Uni-Globe plant; with his stoic, crinkled façade, beaten by a life of dealing with corrupt city folk as much as the weather, Rudy clearly means to embody the mythic cowboy figure, and the scene is striking for the way it evokes melancholy for a lost way of life. Yet here Rudy becomes something of a mirror image to Don’s lost corporate middle man; both are able to sniff out the putrefaction inherent in their businesses, and both are perhaps more similar than one would initially suppose due to persistent stereotypes about their respective professions. Whether surrounded by the wide-open prairie or fixed in a tight suburban box, each man has the potential for change. Or defeat. Linklater and Schlosser refuse to make Kinnear’s suit-and-tie man out to be a soulless stooge. It’s a world of shit for him, too: and his ultimate defeatism (he stops his inquests about halfway through and literally disappears from the movie) attains almost tragic heights.
Despite its borrowed title, Linklater and Schlosser’s sly, sad vision is about so much more than hamburgers: logos, prefabricated homes, frozen dinners, Nike, Chili’s, the Sunglass Hut, all with the stamp of anonymity. Scene after scene rings uncomfortably true: one kid bemoans that if only he could get out of his dead-end fast-food service job, he could make it all the way up to . . . Banana Republic. It’s a nice companion piece to Linklater’s Eric Bogosian adaptation about dead-end kids SubUrbia, but it’s more direct, devastating, and less predicated on the naiveté of post-adolescence. The heart of the film, however, is probably when Linklater takes us inside the slaughterhouse. What shocks above all is not the graphic footage of slaughtered animals, but rather the impact that the death and viscera and inhuman methods have on Sylvia, who has “graduated” to the killing floor in hopes that she can pay for Raul’s serious on-the-job injuries. The most resonant truth here ultimately is not the unavoidable fact of the cows’ deaths, but rather the emotional (and financial) realities of the people employed to handle them. It’s Catalina Sandino Moreno’s tears that one might first recall from the gruesome climax of Fast Food Nation rather than the sight of animals being processed as though conveyer belted coke bottles. It’s a tribute to Linklater’s humane artistry that he, a longtime avowed vegetarian, made Fast Food Nation not just as a takedown of a corrupt food industry but also as way to bravely tell the truth about the firmly rooted corporate systems that allow for such human exploitation.