Meet the Meat
You think it’s a simple hamburger. You think it’s merely a matter of personal choice: You eat the hamburger, or you don’t, and if you don’t eat the hamburger, it’s got nothing to do with you. The blight of candy-colored fast-food joints blotting the landscape may be unfortunate, but what are you gonna do?
Eric Schlosser’s horrifying muckracking book Fast Food Nation showed us that there’s nothing simple about that burger, that we are all impacted by the hegemony of the McDonald’ses and the Burger Kings (and the Pizza Huts and the Wendy’ses…), and that disparate threads of modern life that seem to have nothing to do with one another actually are intertwined: we do indeed live in a nation transformed by the fast-food corps. And now Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly, Before Sunset) has boiled the book down into a just-barely fictional narrative that hits all of Schlosser’s high points through a series of loosely connected characters involving in bringing you those 99-cent hamburgers. To say that Fast Food Nation the movie is less horrifying than the book is accurate, but not fair to the movie, which is plenty horrifying enough. To Linklater’s credit — he directs and wrote the script with Schlosser — he does not attempt to show us all the many greedy tentacles that the fast-food monster sends out at us; that would have made for an unwieldy movie. Instead, by giving us characters to focus on, Linklater puts a human face on a situation that is so huge that it just about paralyzes you.
It’s like this: “This isn’t about good people versus bad people,” says a cattle rancher played by Kris Kristofferson (Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Blade: Trinity) here. “It’s about the machine that’s taken over this country. It’s like something out of science fiction.” And it is: we have characters like Greg Kinnear’s (Invincible, Little Miss Sunshine) marketing exec for fast-food chain Mickey’s (any resemblance to an actual corporation is entirely deliberate), who starts off to investigate why Mickey burgers are, in laboratory tests, setting off alarms for their high fecal-coliform count, which is exactly what it sounds like: there’s shit in the meat. And — not to reveal too much about where things go, because you really must see this for yourself to believe it, must revel in the real-life nightmare of it — he discovers that he is on a hamster wheel he can’t get off without entirely ruining his own life. (A mortgage supported by his fat paycheck is, in the end, a powerful incentive to shut up and keep his head down.) We have the employees at the Colorado meatpacking plant that supplies Mickey’s with the gazillion frozen burgers it needs every day. They’re mostly illegal immigrants — as one bitter Mickey’s employee says, “there’s a reason why it only costs 99 cents” — and their employee handbook might as well be Catch-22, for many reasons I won’t reveal: it would spoil the finely tuned self-perpetuating machine of irony that Schlosser showed us exists in this industry and that Linklater depicts so perfectly. One of those meatpackers is played by the sublime Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) — her character gets caught up as a tiny cog in that irony machine by the film’s end, and her lovely performance is that bitter smack that makes you realize how deeply the fast-food nation has its claw in all of us: it is enabled by good, decent people just trying to make a living. It might be easy to condemn the Kinnear character for trading his integrity for a nice house, but it’s a lot harder to say the same about a woman struggling to simply survive.
And then there’s the Mickey’s counter employee played by Ashley Johnson (King of the Corner), who does get brave enough to take a stand and try to effect some kind of change for the better. All she gets for her trouble is rude wakeup call that — again, you must see to appreciate the clever metaphors that the script deploys in order to make its case — depresses her… and us. It’s not just that Fast Food Nation may make you want to never, ever eat at a McDonald’s or a Burger King ever again: that goes without saying. It’s that the film, depressingly but honestly, wonders if there’s anything we can do that will make everyone realize that there’s a cost to those burgers that goes way beyond 99 cents, even way beyond anything that can be quantified in dollars and sense.