Fast Food Nation

Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s investigation of the fast food industry, Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (IMDB) weaves together three discrete narratives that reveal the dark underbelly beneath the shiny veneer of the fast food indsutry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a Mickey’s marketing executive sent to Cody, Colorado, to investigate high fecal content in Mickey’s signature Big One burger (or as another marketing exec succinctly puts it, “there’s shit in the meat”). In Cody, Don converses briefly with Mickey’s counter-girl, Amber (Ashley Johnson), who dreams of going to college, in part because it will get her out of her stifling hometown. Even her ambition to become an astronaut seems more about a desire to escape than any specific interest in science. Finally, we are introduced to Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a married couple who immigrate from Mexico to take work in Cody, where they inevitably wind up working for the town’s giant slaughterhouse.

When the three plots intersect, they do so casually and conversationally, allowing characters to discuss the implications of the fast food industry, rather than lecturing us about the evils of fast food, which, deep down, many of us already know. In doing so, the film manages to be self-critical, questioning its own premise as an activist movie, a gesture often absent from overtly political films such as Crash (my reading here is not entirely original: Stuart Klawans, MaryAnn Johanson, and AO Scott both make this point in similar ways).

This self-criticism emerges in two pivotal scenes, the first of which features Bruce Willis as a cynical Mickey’s executive working in Cody who openly acknowledges to Don that, yes, there is shit in the meat, but that “everybody needs to eat a little shit from time to time.” [Note: the next few sentences reveal a major plot point.] Later, Amber, charmed and inspired by her free-spirited uncle (Ethan Hawke), chooses to take her own form of political resistance against the fast food industry. After becoming involved with a group of environmental activists at a nearby college, Amber picks up on the cynicism of Paco, who dismisses the group’s plan for a letter writing campaign against Mickey’s, instead suggesting that the group liberate the cows waiting to be slaughtered by opening the pens where they are confined. Of course, Amber’s plans don’t go as expected, and the students are confounded when the cows don’t particualry want to be liberated, preferring the feed and comfort provided by the slaughterhouse.

While I have suggested that Linklater’s film offers these moments of self-critique, his film, like Schlosser’s notorious work of investigative journalism, does not shy away from depicting some of the more gruesome elements of the production of meat. Opening in a relentlessly cheerful Mickey’s, the camera tracks into a hamburger patty, leading us, as it were, into the dark side of the industry. Several scenes were filmed in an actual slaughterhose, including one particularly graphic scene filmed on a kill floor, while Sylvia and Raul endure any number of hardships on the line, with several scenes in particular noting the degree to which illegal immigrant workers can be exploited by what one long-time rancher (Kris Kristofferson) aptly describes as the fast food “machine.”

Linklater’s “machine” metaphor complicates any simple notion of agency. Can Don risk sacrificing his career over his moral objections to the slaughterhouse? What effect can Amber and her fellow environmental activists have when “the bad guys” always seem t win every election? What are the alternatives available to Raul and Sylvia? While Scott and Klawans’ reviews convey this political complexity, I get the impression that FFN was dismissed in other quarters as a political screed, condemning the supposedly intoxicating pleasures of fast food. However, instead, Linklater has offered something far more complicated than that, questioing the efficacy of political films while at the same time reminding us of their absolute necessity.

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