“There’s always been a little shit in the meat,” growls beef supplier Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis), chomping down on a hamburger. He’s gabbing with marketing suit Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), an executive at fast food chain Mickey’s, who’s investigating claims that their flagship “Big One” burgers contain dangerously high levels of faecal matter. Licking his lips with smug satisfaction Rydell adds: “We’ve all gotta eat a little shit sometimes.” It’s a line that cuts to the heart of Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, a scathing attack on corporate irresponsibility, illegal labour and the unhappy truth behind your Happy Meal. If we are what we eat, Linklater argues, we should be really worried.
Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s bestselling book, Fast Food Nation takes a daring approach, reworking the book as a fictional drama set in the featureless town of Cody, Colorado. Three storylines are deftly woven together, Kinnear’s executive hunting shit in the meat while teenage Mickey’s cashier Amber (Ashley Johnson) gets radicalised and a group of illegal Mexican immigrants (led by Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full Of Grace) start work at the town’s meat packing plant. With its ambling, episodic narrative and ensemble cast it’s already been described (by its director) as “the Nashville of meat” and, like Robert Altman’s country and western masterpiece, it’s about the troubled soul of the American nation.
Pitched somewhere between Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation rant No Logo and Morgan Spurlock’s death-by-McDonald’s shock-doc Super Size Me, Fast Food Nation definitely has a beef with shrink-wrapped, mass-produced, super-sized American capitalism. It’s destined to be the most radical movie you’ll see this year, with a value meal’s worth of food for thought. Graphic scenes in the slaughterhouse show both cows and illegal Mexicans being chewed up and by the plant machinery; Kinnear’s executive, faced with the choice between speaking out and risking his job, just disappears from the story; Ethan Hawke briefly cameos to moan about the blandness of American mall culture.
Yet for all its anger, Fast Food Nation is no go-and-get-’em polemic. It’s more like an exhausted sigh of defeat. “The machine has taken over this country... like something out of science-fiction,” explains Kris Kristoffersen’s gnarly rancher, echoing Linklater’s belief that it might already be too late to fight the power. Later Johnson’s eco-warrior tries to free a field of cattle, but like the consumers who are destined to eat them, the cows are too stupid and too comfortable to run for the hills.
Watched back-to-back with the paranoid dystopia of Linklater’s brilliant A Scanner Darkly, you can’t help feeling that the Texan filmmaker has begun to despair of an America where that other Texan sits in the White House.
“There’s always been a little shit in the meat,” Fast Food Nation tells us... and there’s nothing you can do about it. Mmm, we’re not loving it any more.