Film Reviews (2006)  
  Fast Food Nation  
Fast Food Nation

Richard Linklater was the perfect choice to adapt Eric Schlosser’s bestseller “Fast Food Nation”. His slow-poke, conversational style minimizes abstraction without sacrificing complexity. The movie is a brilliantly realized web of connections mapping the pressure points of an ideology instead of relying on “Whoa, dude!” epiphanies of interrelatedness, as in “Slacker”. Sympathies are established without hitting below the belt. Each character is fully-formed. Star cameos (except for a frankly bewildering turn by the talentless Avril Lavigne) add texture and weight. Linklater has a gift for presenting the shapeless sprawl of human motives with engaging intimacy. He’s a great listener, and working at his best, which is frequently the case in this movie, he isolates important patches of dialogue without making scenes feel sculpted or preachy. Few subjects have been better matched with a director’s unique talents than this complicated tale of corporate greed and human weakness.

“Fast Food Nation” takes its place alongside other ambitious political films of recent vintage, like “Syriana”, inasmuch as the target of inquiry is an entire economic and political system. Where Linklater’s film stands apart is in its balance. In ‘Nation’ there is none of the vertigo that goes with “socially conscious” movies that try to link the lowest misdemeanors with the highest criminals. This is best seen in how Linklater treats the character of Rudy, the disgruntled rancher played by the weatherbeaten Kris Kristoffersen in a short but tough performance. A bit like “Mr. X” in Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, Rudy is a “deep throat” insider in the meat industry whose dramatic quiddity, however wispy, masks the director’s sermonizing. But Stone had “Mr. X” spin his conspiracy theory against the backdrop of Washington, D.C., by dramatic association accusing the highest level of American leadership with murder. Rudy fulminates against state-sanctioned American greed, but before he can really stand tall on his soapbox, Linklater has Rudy leave it to his housekeeper to reveal the secrets about the local meat packing facility. The cheerful woman gives the news to Don (Greg Kinnear), a vice president at Mickey’s, a fictional McDonald’s-like corporation, then leaves to fetch the two men a plate of cookies. The message is sent, but the less abstract, more human touch makes a difference.

Each of the four or five major characters Linklater follows heads for a defining choice. Don will have to choose between his job and his conscience. Amber, a promising teenage cashier at a local Mickey’s, will become involved in a risky social group which may derail her life, and might even get her killed. Sylvia and her husband, both illegal aliens, will be forced into an impossible situation which may take away their hard-won dignity. With each story arc, Linklater follows his characters to their moments of truth only to allow them to discover that the system of which they are a part has already foreclosed their future. The film charts how the illusion of free choice gives way to the recognition of unfreedom, and the metaphoric bottom is the “kill floor”. The moment the rancher uses the word “kill floor” in describing the hidden, unsavory side of the meat packing facility, it’s clear that the “kill floor” visit will comprise the movie’s climax. It is a gruesome promise that must be fulfilled, and is. But even as Sylvia—the masked, dehumanized witness through whose eyes we see the killing—recoils from the pitiless butchering, she realizes it is already too late to avoid her fate. She has the job because her husband is injured and unemployed. They’re illegals. Their options are nil. Blood spattering Sylvia’s face and chest is what Linklater gives us instead of a triumphant scene in which she walks off the job.

As much of Linklater’s audience is of the managerial class embodied by Kinnear, it is his point of view which will be of greatest interest because he may have some power over what happens to the others. Kinnear’s trademark understatement is in full swing here as he plays a less desperate version of the dad in “Little Miss Sunshine”. He excels as the Mickey’s VP because his gentle befuddlement is that of an intelligent man, not a doofus; he is a man of at least some sensitivity and heart, not the oblivious white executive of stereotype. The finest, most poetic moment in any movie this year is Kinnear’s: in his hotel room, he moves around, unpacking his bags, giving scant attention to the TV on which two porn stars ooh and ahh on Pay Per View. He seems to have done this hundreds of times, criss-crossing the country from one business park to another. At one point one of the porn actresses yelps, “Pull my hair!”, and this makes Don pause and watch for a second, alerted to the possibility of kinkiness. But no, he decides, it’s nothing. He scoffs, snaps out of it, and continues unpacking. His jaded palate, his lukewarm sexual desire, his essential distraction are hilariously played in a brief but fully realized portrait of the average white collar American male in all his ritualized boredom.

This might have been only a comic moment used to reveal Kinner’s tendencies and nothing more. We forget about the scene as Don tackles more important matters, namely the investigation of the Mickey’s meat-packing plant in Cody. Little by little, he figures out that the tainted meat—literally there is shit in the hamburger—is not an accident but the result of a huge, cynical, and extremely belligerent corporate cartel which is embodied by the hard-nosed Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis). Don confronts Rydell with his findings, telling him that he’ll have to report back to his boss in California on the criminal negligence he’s found in Cody. Willis, doing his annual genius cameo to remind us of what a gifted actor he is, crams a breathtaking mixture of naked menace and charming good ol’ boy reasoning into Rydell’s stern warning to Don not to get involved. Don’s moment of decision has arrived, and it looks like he won’t yield. Here Linklater and Schlosser’s script does something ingenious. To intimidate him off the investigation, Rydell warns Don that his boss may be on his way out, a casualty of a scandal involving an affair with his secretary. At first Don scoffs, but a shadow passes over his face as a larger observation comes to his mind. Don has begun to grasp that his boss’s personal flaws have given his enemies blackmail power over his moral life. His infidelity is a minor matter, but it will be enough to take him down, and Don knows it.

Later that night we watch Don wrestle with his conscience. Should he risk his career or keep his mouth shut and keep drawing paychecks?  He has a wife and kid to support, and even if he speaks up he might be axed regardless of whether or not he blows the whistle on the company’s malfeasance. Rydell has let him know they’re playing hardball. Disappointingly, but hardly surprisingly, Don chooses security over altruism. For Linklater, though, the important moment comes when Don checks out of his hotel the next day. His slide into disillusionment is complete when he realizes how much a part of the “machine” Rudy had described he really is. The desk clerk is as robotic in her perky questions (“How was your stay here?”) as Amber was when she took his order at Mickey’s. He had been proud of Amber’s scripted politeness, but to the clerk he gives a flippant answer, expecting her to ignore him as glibly as if she were a talking Barbie doll, which she does. The facade has started to crumble. And in a quick line, the clerk mentions that he’s paying for three Pay Per View movies along with the regular room charge with his corporate American Express—the same smut we saw him watching a day earlier. Now, Don’s watching of X-rated Pay Per View isnt’ in the same class of his boss’s transgression, but it is for Don to connect them such that he understands that his moral uprightness, like his boss, was compromised long before he encountered the moral crucible he’s facing.

It’s the same nagging anxiety felt by all the other characters, to some degree, that makes “Fast Food Nation” stand apart from the other jigsaw puzzle movies of this type (“Babel”, “Traffic”, “Crash”, etc). Each character suffers from the original sin of capitalism. Linklater and Schlosser focus on the middle range of participants in a much larger, broader system of exploitation. The plight of the powerless—the illegal immigrants—is of course dreadful, but what’s key to the film’s viewpoint is that their miseries largely come from those at the middle of the social ladder, not the top. A foreman is the villain of the movie, not a fat cat. These types are all over “Fast Food Nation”, from the men who ferry Mexicans across the border illegally to the current middle class (represented by Don) to the future middle class (represented by Amber) to Willis’ UMP man. On and on. The most disturbingly presented of them all may be the Latina translator whose job it is to deliver the heartless message to Sylvia that the company will not take care of her injured husband. The woman is just doing her job, and clearly she’s sympathetic to Sylvia, but none of this matters. Like everyone else, her personal circumstances compel her to carry out her orders. They no longer possess the power to act morally unless they are to willing, in effect, to sacrifice everything for certain financial hardship.

Linklater’s central theme is deepened further by the subplot of the flunky kids working as fry-cooks with Amber. It’s a measure of how multi-layered the movie is that even this scrap of narrative has incredible relevance to what’s going on with the main characters. When their planned robbery of the store’s safe doesn’t happen, we realize the two teenage malcontents have most likely given up because they are only too keenly aware of the ways in which that money is protected. These are a couple of ‘F’ students who nevertheless are thoroughly aware of all the nuances of the security state. Despair is written on their faces. They lack the understanding of the market forces that Amber’s college friends have, but they know enough to understand the Big Brother world in which they live. These low-end kids are self-policing. So are the smart kids, but in less apparent, more insidious ways. When Amber suggests to her college buddies that they try industrial sabotage, the sophomore activists love the idea. They carry out a little operation to save cattle from slaughter. They succeed in opening the way to freedom for the cattle, but the cattle don’t budge. A car comes; the kids run for it; and back at their dorm room, disappointed in the livestock, they nevertheless laugh about their misadventure. When Gerald (a.k.a. Paco), hitherto the most radical of the bunch, giggles and falls backward on his bed, next to a guitar, some books, CDs, posters, and other typical student accoutrements, suddenly a suburban teenager again, you sense insolubility of his bonds. The next time he wants to stand up for the truth, it will be that much harder.

“Fast Food Nation”‘s achievement is its non-judgmental focus on these unwitting accomplices, the nobodies who do the dirty work for corporations and for whom there is no exit. Linklater does not belittle the selfishness of these characters. Indeed, his film is resoundingly depressing—the journey it offers is not from enlightenment but a slow fall to the kill floor. Some, like Don, live much better than others, like Sylvia, but all are helplessly driven by the dehumanizing need for money. But “Fast Food Nation” is no more an argument for corporate reform than the cow’s blood that spatter’s Sylvia’s face is an argument for vegetarianism. The filmmakers know that most of the people who watch their movie have, like the characters, compromised moral positions of their own. This isn’t news for most people, of course, but Linklater’s dramatic procedure strips away an illusion that does persist: the great lie in America is not that we believe we are moral but really aren’t. It’s that we vaguely accept our own immorality but believe that when the moment arrives, pushed down to our bedrock beliefs, we’ll do the right thing. Linklater rejects this deferral. There is no crystallizing moment in the future in which we can act morally. The system has already decided the matter. The dilemmas in “Fast Food Nation” require solutions that are outside the film’s purview, but precisely because it rejects the comforts of Hollywood pseudo-liberalism and shows its chilly disdain for false hope, Linklater’s movie might spark real change in how we think about the problem.