Whatever else it may be, Fast Food Nation is not a conventional drama, nor should it be approached as one. The latest film from the busy, eclectic Richard Linklater—whose credits in just the past three years have included School of Rock, Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly and the Bad News Bears remake—is based not on a novel or short story, but on Eric Schlosser's best-selling work of muckraking journalism. And while Linklater, who wrote the script with Schlosser, has created fictitious characters and dramatic situations out of his non-fiction source material, the film's primary purpose is not theatrical or artistic, but social and political.
Unlike, say, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, which was primarily about the health problems inherent in a steady diet of burgers and fries, both the book and film versions of Fast Food Nation are concerned with the broader social trends that cut across not just the fast food industry, but the industrialized world as a whole. Farms and ranches have increasingly been replaced by meat-packing "factories," many of which keep prices down by hiring illegal immigrants—laborers who, because of their insecure status, are ripe for abuse by the company's managers.
Schlosser's book covers many aspects of the fast-food industry, but Linklater's film must, of necessity, focus on just a few, while giving tacit nods to the others. The first part of the film follows two basic storylines. In one, a group of Mexicans treks across the border—accidentally leaving one man behind to die in the wilderness—and is taken to Colorado, where some of them get jobs at a meat-packing plant. In the other, an executive at Mickey's Burgers named Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is sent by his boss in Anaheim to check out that very same meat-packing plant, because a potentially embarrassing study has found that there is fecal matter in the meat.
Don is no naïf, or at least he shouldn't be. He's a top-ranking vice-president whose most recent invention, a burger called "the Big One," is a runaway success, and he is at least partly aware of how these things are made; in one early scene, he visits a chemical lab to sniff the artificial flavors that give the burgers their taste. But he is caught off-guard by the allegation that there is excrement in the meat, and few, if any, of the people he meets will give him straight answers to his questions.
Meanwhile, the Mexicans pursue different career paths, most of them dehumanizing, as some take drugs to stay awake during their long, hazardous shifts at the plant, while at least one, Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón), sleeps with her supervisor, Mike (Bobby Cannavale), in the hope that it will help her get ahead at work. The film also follows a high-school student named Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works at the local Mickey's outlet but, with some goading from her uncle (Ethan Hawke), a former campus activist, gradually becomes dissatisfied with her life at the till.
It will come as no surprise that some of these characters end up selling their souls in one way or another, while a tiny remnant struggle, perhaps in vain, to hold on to some small measure of humanity. It's all a bit didactic, but it's actually rather impressive, how Linklater packs so many frames and so many bits of dialogue with details that help drive his point home—from the amputee who just happens to be sitting there when the Mexicans arrive for their first day of work, to the way a cynical meat supplier (Bruce Willis) takes a long, appreciative look at a waitress's bottom.
At one point, Don visits a crusty old rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who resents the modernization that is all around him—meat-packing factories, cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods built by speculators on former ranchland, and so on. When Don gets out of the rancher's truck to open one of his gates, he quips, "You should get a clicker." But by the time Don has finished his inquiry, his spirit is crushed. A hotel clerk asks, chirpily, if he enjoyed his stay. "Not really," says Don, but the clerk carries on as though she didn't hear him, and he is left to wander outside through automated doors that open and shut like the soulless machines they are.
So on one level, the film is about much more than just fast food; in a statement that fits rather nicely with the Gnostic undertones of some of Linklater's earlier films, Kristofferson's rancher explains that the issue facing us is "not about good people versus bad people. It's about the machine that's taking over our country." This theme is echoed later when Amber tells her boss, "This place, it doesn't feel real."
Unfortunately, however, Linklater pulls his punches, by focusing so narrowly on the meat aspect of fast food; at times the film threatens to become a mere animal rights tract. In its final moments, the film depicts the actual stunning and slaughter of cows, but without any of the problems that the film has spelled out for us (e.g., we never see the meat get contaminated by feces leaking out of the intestines). It is as though the film expects us to be shocked not only because, as several characters say, "There is s--- in the meat," but because there is meat in the meat.
Some of the film's other points seem a bit trite, too. More than one comedy has shown some burger-flipping kid spit into a burger to spite some customer or other that he doesn't like. (The fact that the burger-flipping kid in this film is played by Paul Dano, and the customer is played by Kinnear, who played Dano's father in Little Miss Sunshine, does make the scene slightly funnier than it is, though.) Also, when one executive reports that the Teletubbies are unavailable for a marketing campaign because Burger King and McDonald's have already got dibs on them, the president of Mickey's utters an expletive, just to ram home the fact that there are greedy, profane grown-ups behind all those smiling, kid-friendly mascots at the local restaurant.
That said, this film—and documentaries like Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread, which looks at how the industrialization of the food industry has affected vegetables and minerals as well as animals—do serve a valuable purpose in getting us to think and act more responsibly about the way we relate to the creation that God has entrusted to us, and to the people with whom we share this planet.Discussion starters
- One character says that a "machine" is "taking over our country." Do you agree? How does the film express this theme, visually as well as verbally
- What does the film have to say about "safety" and "security"? Note the security guards and metal detectors at the school, as well as the meat supplier's rant against those who complain about the excrement in the meat ("Just cook it. That's all you need to do. . . . You want to be safe? Perfectly safe? That's not going to happen"). Is "safety" possible? Desirable? How does this relate to the "machine" theme
- Amber says the fast food restaurant where she works "doesn't feel real." What would a "real" place feel like? Are any work environments "real"
- Pete tells Amber, "You don't just sit back and hope. You have to do something. In a town like this, hope will kill you." What does he mean by that? Is he right
- What responsibility do we have, as Christians, when it comes to food? Would, say, the instructions that Paul gives regarding meat that might have been sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10) have any application here?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Fast Food Nation is rated R for disturbing images (industrial accidents; scenes of animal slaughter), strong sexuality (a few sexual encounters, including some nudity, between a supervisor and his underlings; the sounds of a porn film on a hotel TV), language (about three dozen four-letter words) and drug content.
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Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/30/06
Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation is a non-fiction exposé on the many and varied problems with America's fast food industry. And director Richard Linklater, one of the most versatile and talented American filmmakers working today, has turned that study into a web of stories that emphasize those flaws.
Christian film critics have mixed responses.
Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn) says, " … [T]he movie provides a laundry list of society's ills without a single solution in sight. I can't imagine anyone leaving the theater feeling anything other than helplessness and frustration. Maybe this was the goal."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "By the time you've finished watching Fast Food Nation you will surely think twice before biting into that next Big Mac or Whopper. … [The movie] is an absorbing, albeit bleak, multiplotted expose excoriating the fast-food industry for its dangerous, unsanitary and exploitative working conditions … ."
Mainstream critics are similarly divided over Linklater's latest.