Carnal Knowledge
By Elbert Ventura

Fast Food Nation
Dir. Richard Linklater, U.S., Fox Searchlight

Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation isn’t technically a horror film, but it’s brought me the closest I’ve come to nauseated dread at the movies this year. The offending scene is a climactic tour of the killing floor at a meatpacking plant, where the mechanized slaughter of cattle and its messy preparation for mass consumption is depicted unblinkingly. It may be the first time that the workings of a factory farm have been shown in an American movie (it’s certainly my first glimpse of it in a theater), and the novelty and awfulness of the sight pack a mean punch. But Linklater’s objective goes beyond the visceral. The slaughterhouse holocaust is merely the piece de resistance atop a succession of sociological horrors that have left their psychic scars well before blood and guts spill out. The spectacle of a cow being disemboweled and skinned may be a new sight in multiplexes, but the America Fast Food Nation maps out is terrifyingly, depressingly familiar.

Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s bestselling expose of the fast food industry, Linklater’s film spins a multi-plotted narrative out of the book’s muckraking revelations. As the title implies, it’s not just an industry, but an entire way of life, that comes under assault. Schlosser’s book was a modern-day update of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel that famously prompted government reforms of the food industry. It may be too much to ask a book to have the same effect on a society inured to the sight of simulated carnage, and Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is nothing if not attuned to the elevation of movies as the instrument of choice for muckrakers one hundred years after Sinclair’s seismic novel.

A searing snapshot of an American ghost world, the movie is at once Linklater’s most political and least characteristic work. It takes place in the wide, dusty spaces of the West, an expanse fast being swallowed up by a voracious America. A triumph of location shooting, Fast Food Nation maps out a country of strip malls, fast food restaurants, highways, hotels, motels, feed lots, and factories. The movie also gets at the hollowness of our daily interactions, most of which revolve around the exchange of goods. Bland corporate-speak at work, sitcom platitudes at home, and the animatronic cheerfulness of the service industry provide a satiric undercurrent that stops short of being played too broad.

On this landscape Linklater and Schlosser (who co-wrote the script) set in motion three interlocking plots. The movie opens in Anaheim, where Don (Greg Kinnear, in a role that nicely complements his character in the annoying Little Miss Sunshine), a marketing executive for the Mickey’s fast food chain, talks of the campaign for the next product line. Cut to a U.S.-Mexico border town, where a handful of Mexicans prepare for the crossing into the U.S. Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) eventually end up in Cody, Colorado, where the latter finds work at UMP, Mickey’s meatpacking supplier. Cody is also home to Amber (Ashley Johnson), a hard-working teenager who spends her nights doing shifts at one of the myriad Mickey’s in town. Don also ends up in Cody, sent there by his boss to investigate a troubling finding from recent tests of Mickey’s patties: “There’s shit in the meat.”

As the synopsis suggests, the movie’s storytelling mode is currently a fashionable one: We’re in the plot-trotting, we-are-all-connected territory of Crash, Innaritu, and Stephen Gaghan (perhaps the most relevant reference point here). Though devoid of the self-importance of Gaghan-Soderbergh and the meaningless mysticism of Inarritu-Arriaga, the movie never does rise above the limitations of its construction. Linklater’s greatest films feel untethered to the dictates of narrative—they unfurl with effortless fluency. Fast Food Nation, by contrast, can’t help but feel overdetermined. The breadth is, of course, necessary to underscore the holistic nature of the problem. But what is a faithful dramatization of a political outlook comes off as a trite device.

Putting on the polemicist’s hat, Linklater in the process makes some uncharacteristic missteps. The movie’s overture, set in a packed Mickey’s, comes off as ham-handed; the parting shot, of a couple of Mickey’s kiddie meals handed to two Mexican children crossing the border, feels like cheap irony. Fast Food Nation is also the closest a Linklater movie has come to pontificating. Late in the movie, a college student (played by Avril Lavigne?!) rants about the cluelessness of the herd of cows at the UMP feedlots, all but spelling out that, yes, the cows are us. It’s the kind of thudding metaphor that seems anomalous coming from Linklater.

Leavening the didacticism, however, is the director’s relaxed naturalism. Linklater’s love for the cacophony of discussion has always been one of his strengths; when his characters hold forth on life, the universe, and everything, it always rings true to their experiences (and ours). Far from being mouthpieces for Linklater and Schlosser, the people in Fast Food Nation are fully formed moral beings who arrive at their truths their own way. When Kris Kristofferson’s rancher resignedly talks about "the machine that has taken over this country," the epiphany feels sprung from within rather than imposed from without.

Linklater’s sensibility snaps into focus in a plotline involving budding environmental activists at a local university. Inspired by their idealism, Amber quits her job at Mickey’s and hatches a plan with them to free the cows in the UMP feedlot. Their bull sessions, with grand pronouncements like “I can’t think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act,” may ring like lefty pandering, but Linklater has never been the facile type. In the next scene, the eco-warriors cut the fences at the farm—and find that the cows don’t really want to run free. Youthful idealism punctured by farcical failure, the sequence underscores Linklater’s humanist rejection of certitude—even if it’s the certainty of people with whom he probably agrees. That kind of liberal doubt goes a long way toward tempering the movie’s soapbox tendencies.

Even when he undercuts the young, Linklater can’t help but evince faith in them. Amber’s slow shedding of false consciousness (“It doesn’t feel real,” she says of Mickey’s when she quits) represents the movie’s best hope for change. Not so with Don and Sylvia. Don may dig assiduously and his conscience is genuinely pricked, but he disappears about two-thirds into the movie. The next we see him is at the end, unveiling his ad campaign for Mickey’s new sandwich—a portrait of moral awakening abbreviated by the needs of a middle-class lifestyle. Sylvia’s is a starker desperation. When Raul has to stop working after a workplace accident, she is left no choice but to leave her job as a hotel cleaning lady for a higher-paying position at the plant. The stupefied look on her face as she stands at the assembly line pulling kidneys from dead cows is a heartbreaking epitaph for a dream deferred.

But it is the hope that’s encased in the movie that supplies its poignancy. For all of its outrage, Fast Food Nation shows a touching faith in democracy—in our capacity, as citizens, to engage in conversation, inform ourselves, and, perhaps, change. Linklater obviously fancies his movie as a contribution to that conversation. Yes, he and Schlosser may resort to spoon-feeding us our veggies a little too often. But as a mirror to our automated, assembly-line society, Fast Food Nation is compelling. As a reminder of our role in the growth of the American abattoir, it is downright troubling.