With his unsettling 2001 bestseller, Eric Schlosser served up an exposé of the fast-food industry guaranteed to make you lose your appetite - at least temporarily - for all things drive-through. The book was super-sized with facts and figures. What it didn't have was a plot. Or characters, dialogue or drama.
When was the last time a popular work of nonfiction was adapted for the screen as a dramatic feature? If what director Richard Linklater has done with Fast Food Nation isn't completely unprecedented, at the very least it's daring and highly innovative. Turning the book into a documentary would have been less work, certainly, and less risky from a commercial standpoint. It may have even resulted in a film that works better than this one does. But Linklater hasn't assembled the body of work that he has by doing the obvious.
If his movies have anything in common, it's this spirit of experimentation. What other common thread runs through Slacker, Before Sunrise, The Newton Boys, A Scanner Darkly and School of Rock? It's as though the filmmaker has gone out of his way to avoid a trademark style. In that context, Fast Food Nation can be seen as classic Linklater.
Though, as I say, it is undeniably more notable as an experiment than as a motion picture. Greg Kinnear is one of a half-dozen or so big names playing characters whose stories intersect, sort of. He's a marketing executive with a fictional chain by the name of Mickey's. Sent to Cody, Colorado - home to the packing plant that cranks out its patties by the millions - his mission is to determine whether there's any truth to the rumor that the meat contains traces of cow manure.
His investigation brings him into contact with a succession of colorful types. Kris Kristofferson appears briefly as a rancher who's done business with the plant in the past. He invites Kinnear out to his spread, a vast stretch of Marlboro Country bordered on one side by tract housing that's replaced failed farms.
He doesn't have a lot to offer on the cow-poop front. Luckily, though, his maid has a relative who works on one of the plant's assembly lines, and she proves to be a font of information. The intestines are pulled out of carcasses manually, she explains, and every so often they'll rip open and their contents will splash onto meat, which goes on to be processed. "How often?" inquires the Mickey's exec. She smiles. "Oh, every day."
Kinnear takes this revelation up the corporate ladder to a local manager, a brief role played by Bruce Willis. He doesn't see a problem. "Just cook the meat," he tells Kinnear. All the outlets cook the meat at a temperature that kills the bacteria, so where's the problem? For the Mickey's exec, the problem is the eventual realization that blowing the whistle will likely cost him his job. He wrestles with his conscience - although "wrestles" might be too generous a word. He mulls things over in his hotel room, while watching pay-per-view porn.
While all this is unfolding in the corporate offices - at the top of the Mickey's food chain, so to speak - an entirely different story is taking place at the bottom. The script, co-written by Linklater and Schlosser, also follows a group of Mexicans who enter the country illegally in order to work at the packing plant, and thereby improve their lives.
It's clear that some of these people are mistreated. Others even meet with tragedy. Women are enticed to offer sexual favors in exchange for preferential treatment in the workplace. Men are ground up like so much chuck, losing limbs in giant machines. What's less clear is how all this relates to the health and sociological issues the book raised regarding America's fast-food fixation.
I doubt that the film's creators mean to suggest the industry has a monopoly on corporate greed, bureaucratic corruption or workplace accidents. They go out of their way, in fact, to point out that the immigrants are paid 30 times what they could have made back home, where working conditions are considerably less safe.
So, I'm not sure precisely what point they mean to make. The film's climactic moments consist of slaughterhouse footage in which we follow an animal from the instant it's shot in the head through its being disemboweled to the point when workers hack up red hunks on an assembly line. It's gory, bloody and disgusting, but I'm not sure it's shocking. Is there anyone out there who doesn't understand their Whopper used to walk around on four legs?
The movie asks the question, Can you live with this? Can you live with yourself? For better or worse, I suspect most of us, if we're honest, will answer that we can. After all, what's the alternative? Besides, plants would still be packing meat even if no one ever sold another serving of fast food. About midway through the picture, Linklater and Schlosser seem to lose the thread of their theme and digress into a rant against consuming meat in general, rather than franchise fare in particular.
Fast Food Nation is a worthy experiment and worth one's time. But watching it might have been more satisfying had its makers been clearer and more consistent about the nature of their beef.