Fast Food Nation kicks off with a suit-clad fast food chain boss telling one of his executives to investigate a meat packing plant rumored to be allowing fecal matter to infect the beef. But the only thing that’s contaminated here is director Richard Linklater’s meandering, unfocused movie, which has an unmistakable whiff of Causeitis — a compulsive inability to avoid taking up any of the many issues in the lefty activist canon.
As he did in movies like Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, Linklater gives us another sprawling talkfest. But instead of his usual bent toward abstract philosophical pondering, Fast Food Nation is a bubbling vat of unhinged lefty political rambling — a manic run through the liberal cause midway, dead set on playing every game and taking aim at every target.
Linklater’s movie is primarily about trying to get us to think that fast food is seriously icky stuff. But it’s also about (just to name several that spring to mind): illegal immigration, animal rights, the PATRIOT act, hourly wage work, biotech foods, industrial farming, sexual exploitation, employee abuse, rightwing collusion between business and government, Halliburton, eminent domain abuse, globalization, workplace safety, exercising one’s passion for environmental activism, corporate financial scandal, and, erm, the spread of home-brew meth labs. It’s a 2000 calorie serving of blindly flailing anti-corporate diatribes complete with all the side dish rants anyone could ever want.
As one might expect from such an unruly mess of topics, the movie is spectacularly unfocused. Plotlines appear and disappear like limited time only menu items. At first, the protagonist seems to be the aforementioned executive, Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear, who spends most of the movie moping glumly). He heads out to Wyoming to investigate the safety practices of the suspect plant. But the story also follows a band of illegal immigrants as they cross the border and secure jobs, most of which are at the plant in question. As the film moves forward, other storylines fade in and out, leaving the film with little solid narrative ground.
Linklater presents Wyoming as a sort of Crunchy Con hell: the land owners are under threat; giant highways packed with SUVs cut through the landscape; the roadsides are mined with chains like Wal-Marts and McDonald’s; the food is all greasy and pre-processed; and the system is barricaded and fortified to prevent anything from changing it. If there is a single unifying theme in the movie, it’s an unadulterated disgust with the spread of big corporations.
The film tries to make several significant points with a series of star cameos. Kris Kristofferson shows up as a besieged landowner who complains about the low quality standards meat packing plants use to ratchet up their profits. Ethan Hawke swaggers in as a former hippie protester reminiscing about his college glory days of sit-ins and activism.
But the cameo that makes the biggest impression is Bruce Willis’ turn as a brutish, misogynist regional business manager. In his single scene, Willis chows down beef, makes lewd comments about women, and espouses a libertarian-style ideology of buyer-beware profit maximization. “Want to be safe? Perfectly safe?” he grunts, “Well that’s not gonna happen. Forty thousand people die in auto accidents every year. Does that mean Detroit should stop making cars?” Willis’ one-note character is portrayed as pure, snarling evil, a walking, talking symbol of all that the film wants us to see as wrong with free-market capitalism. The problem, though, is that, despite the manner in which Willis’ character is played, there’s a certain truth to his statements. One should avoid unnecessary dangers, but some level of risk is inherent in every business.
If Willis provides the movie’s most sneering scene, several late-film moments with a band of young environmental activists provide the most witless. Partially inspired by Ethan Hawke’s character, these youngsters sit around blubbering out a slew of leftwing talking points — everything from corporate campaign donations to fawning over Greenpeace — and eventually tromp off on a foolhardy mission to “rescue” some cattle from their pen. They cut the fence, but the cows won’t leave, giving them an opportunity to brood over whether the cows were “too stupid” to take an opportunity for “freedom.” “Who knows. Maybe it’s easier in there,” one kid says, as if trying to cattle-prod the audience into recognizing that those stupid cows are really, like, a metaphor for the American people, man.
Still, for all its extraneous commentary, the movie is mostly designed to sell audiences on the notion that fast food isn’t just unhealthy, but downright disgusting. Thus, every scene with food is shot in as unappetizing a manner as possible, and it makes sure to cash in on every sort of kitchen and food-prep related gross out. Surly, burger-flipping teenage cooks spit in sandwiches and drop burger patties on the floor; the meat packing plant, with its sterile color scheme, comes off like an all-white industrial hell. In the film’s final moments, we head out onto the killing floor, a scene that plays like a ghoulish scare-sequence from a horror film — all spooky music over surreal visions of blood and guts. The idea isn’t just to convince audiences that fast food can be unhealthy, but that it’s deeply grotesque and even frightening. Never mind that eating beef, from any source, must necessarily involve killing, and that, yes, it can be a somewhat bloody process. The movie conflates one’s distaste for watching slaughterhouse procedure with revulsion for the finished meal.
In the end, few of the movie’s points register, for Linklater is far more concerned with quantity than quality. It’s the fast-food approach to politically aware cinema, filmmaking that fills one up on empty feeling but provides little in the way of substance.