Richard Linklater makes films that are so gentle and devoid of conflict it’s easy to miss how daring they are. Movies like Waking Life, Boyhood or the Before series—all of which are basically unprecedented in either their structure or production—have made him the most original American director working today.
This made Linklater an appropriate—if unexpected—choice to adapt Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction Fast Food Nation, a book that investigated the massive complexity hiding behind the most placid facade imaginable. Appropriate, because Linklater’s quiet radicalism matched the book’s shocking revelations—but unexpected, because Linklater seems like the last person out to ruffle feathers. It’s easy to imagine a political filmmaker making an angrier version of this story, one filled with righteous fury against the industry, or a satirical director turning it into a dark comedy that juxtaposes bright corporate facades against dark reality—Ronald McDonald as thug. Both of those approaches might have been valid, but Linklater’s feels like the right take for this material. Because fast food is ubiquitous, and because pretty much everyone has eaten it at one point or another, a more accusatory tone probably would’ve fallen on deaf or hostile ears. While Linklater’s film contains anger about the injustices it portrays, it’s mostly thoughtful about what it means to live in an accelerated and homogenized culture, taking stock of what has been lost by these huge and very new trends. The fast-food industry is about as close as Linklater ever got to featuring a villain in his movies, but he’s not storming the gates with pitchforks.
First things first: Fast Food Nation is an anthropological book, covering the impact the industry has had on health, economics, culture, and the food supply. It covers a lot of ground, much of it fascinating. It’s remarkable how many of the issues Schlosser discusses remain a major part of the food debate, and how prescient his analysis proved to be. (Few of his worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass, though some seem to have peaked and faded.) The pages contain a lot of statistics and a lot of history, as well as sequences where he simply explains the logistics involved in, say, creating billions of French fries everyday. But they lack any elements that would qualify as movie-adaptation-friendly, like developed characters or an extended story. Comparisons between the movie and book, in other words, are basically impossible if you’re talking style or content. There are a lot of characters in the film, but none of them have a direct equivalent in the book.
Source material with such limited narrative potential might have been a problem for other directors, but Slacker showed that Linklater doesn’t need plot or characters to make a successful film. This is a guy, after all, who views his formless Dazed And Confused as “too plot-driven,” and scaled down further in the “spiritual sequel” Everybody Wants Some.
So despite the nature of its source, Fast Food Nation might be Linklater’s most incident-heavy picture. It takes the form of one of those everything-is-connected dramas, with a cheeseburger playing the part that oil did in Syriana and drugs did in Traffic. There’s also a dash of David Lynch in the grotesque places the story goes; just as Blue Velvet starts by literally burrowing under the surface of an idealized small-town America, Nation opens with a tracking shot that slides through a commercial-ready fast food joint, ending with a queasy zoom into a greasy patty.
A popular criticism of the film was that the book would’ve been better suited by the documentary format, and some viewed Food, Inc. and Super Size Me as the “real” adaptations by delivering the book’s information more explicitly. (It was apparently decided that a narrative film would have better box-office prospects, though Super Size Me outgrossed it by a factor of 10.) This point of view isn’t wholly wrong, given how the script—written by Linklater and Schlosser, the latter a former playwright—seems constructed to include political points rather than being driven by characters. The book’s major themes—the sections about migrant labor, health effects, and working conditions—are translated into the book’s central plotlines, while the secondary points aren’t dramatized so much as relegated to dialogue. The book notes how franchise locations are popular targets for criminals, so characters speculate about why a nearby McDonald’s was robbed. We read that wage-depressing McJobs led to a rise in meth usage, and are shown the ruins of an exploded meth lab. A point about how female migrant workers are likely to experience sexual harassment manifests itself in an asshole slaughterhouse manager (played by Bobby Cannavale) molesting an illegal immigrant played by Ana Claudia Talancón. There’s a brief scene in a flavor lab, one that mirrors the in-book Schlosser learning how chemically laden fast food is. Schlosser writes extensively about the homogenization of culture that came with global franchises, so Ethan Hawke shows up to give a very Linklater-esque rant about it. About the only issue the film doesn’t broach is the international focus Schlosser brings in at the end of the book, looking at how the Golden Arches are a legitimate symbol of freedom for former Soviet territories, even as McDonald’s culture-crushing expansion continues apace.
The politics are coherent, but frequently shoehorned into the proceedings. That said, this doesn’t play as awkwardly as it might with another director. Few Linklater films read as overtly political, but because most feature what are basically aimless dorm-room discussions about the meaning of life, it isn’t too big a leap for him to go to literal dorm-room rants about the state of the world. Fast Food Nation features the Linklater touch for dialogue and naturalistic performances, which means it’s never hard to watch, though it is best when it goes for subtlety. A Godard-ian shot where a car passes by endless franchises—apparently, the only businesses in the area—makes the point of Hawke’s rant in a far more elegant way, while a recurring motif of corporate flags outflanking the stars and stripes deftly conveys the film’s position on who actually holds the power.
In the story that takes up much of the film’s first half, a new fast-food marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) investigates a report that his chain’s meat features a high presence of fecal matter. (While the film names and shows real-life establishments, Kinnear works at the fictional, albeit thinly veiled “Mickey’s,” famous for serving “the Big One.”) The investigation takes Kinnear to meet ranchers and suppliers, a tactic that allows the filmmakers to explain the logistics and scale of the industry. This material is often quite interesting, but only in a documentary way: It falls flat as drama. Kinnear’s character’s most defining characteristic is that he watches a lot of pay-per-view porn on his trip (this is thematically on point, with porn—like fast food—a poor-but-convenient substitute for the real thing). There are effective cameos by Bruce Willis as a meat supplier and Kris Kristofferson as a rancher, but ultimately this storyline is purely informative. (In what would eventually become a cameo, that’s Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane playing Kinnear’s son.)
The second of the film’s threads is a little juicier, following a fast-food worker who goes from hating her job to rebelling against it, eventually attempting to free a herd of slaughterhouse-bound cows. The turn to activism isn’t particularly convincing: This KFC alum can assure you that political considerations fell well below factors like the 10-cents-above-minimum-wage pay, the long hours, and the exhausting nature of the work when it came to reasons to hate the job. But Ashley Johnson gives an endearing performance as a young woman struggling to balance her ideals with responsibilities like school and financial necessity. The other material here—including disaffected coworker Paul Dano, who spits into burgers—doesn’t work as well. The fact that teenagers have to work crappy jobs isn’t compelling, or even a problem in any political sense; soul-sucking jobs are not a phenomenon created by the modern franchised world, in other words. Perhaps it would have been useful for Linklater to cast at least one non-teenage worker to underline how these are jobs of last resort for all types of people, as well as being a major contributor to widening income inequality.
The final plot is by far the most compelling, and one that could have filled an entire movie on its own. It follows a group of Mexican workers who cross the border and struggle their way through terrible jobs that put them at severe risk of injury. (Along with Talancón, they’re played by Catalina Sandino Moreno—an Oscar nominee for Maria Full Of Grace—and Wilmer Valderrama, whose easygoing charm and nuance here were a mild revelation after his role as Fez in That ’70s Show.) This story offers inherent drama and stakes, something that can’t be said of the film’s other thirds, and the narrative and political material dovetails here in a way it doesn’t elsewhere. We can see why businesses use these workers who toil for less pay than their American equivalents and don’t have the same protections, and why the workers are desperate enough to take the jobs. For once, the characters inform the politics, making clear why the damaging cycle exists and perpetuates itself. (Oddly, the film doesn’t try to fit in any points about lax government regulations or about how anti-union fast food companies are—two issues discussed at length in the book.)
The film builds to Moreno being forced to take a job on the “kill floor” of a slaughterhouse. The scene is certainly hellish—apparently real footage, definitely not for the squeamish—but it plays more like a “meat is murder” point than a coherent argument against industrialized farming. In a way, that’s the movie in a nutshell: The points are all being made, but in questionable service to the film’s drama. At times, Fast Food Nation feels like the cinematic version of one of the burgers whose path it tracks—cobbled together from a bunch of disparate parts, and unlikely to go down easy.
Start with: Fast Food Nation is a curious entry in Linklater’s filmography. It isn’t bad by any means, but he’s made so many films that are so much better, it inevitably falls toward the bottom of any ranking. As a public service announcement, the movie is comprehensive, and it pays more attention to dialogue and characters than most narrative polemics that are designed to convert instead of entertain. Still, the book is far more illuminating, and there’s little doubt that nonfiction is the appropriate medium for this message. Stick with the book.