Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Images, Strong Sexuality, Language and Drug Content
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Eric Schlosser
(based on the book FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser)
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano
Far more on the dramatic side of things than the documentary SUPER SIZE ME bringing attention to the same problems, FAST FOOD NATION is told through multiple connecting narratives that revolve around the greasy food industry. A good way of describing this storytelling style is that this is TRAFFIC with the drugs swapped out for burgers and still set around a corrupt broken system. What makes NATION so much more intriguing as a film is that writer Eric Schlosser, who penned the non-fiction book that this film takes its name from, joins director Linklater on the screenplay. The commentary and messages aren’t subtle in the slightest, but everything is solid enough to bring plenty of weight to the everything being said. Well-written characters make the film work as a drama, even if some of the stories themselves come off as one draft away from being completed. I can safely say that this is an interesting and intelligent movie saddled with a fair share of pitfalls.
Don Anderson is a marketing representative for Mickey’s (a fast food restaurant chain) and has been informed of a very disturbing test result. A popular new menu item called “The Big One” has been found to contain some cow manure in the meat itself. His boss politely addresses it as “There’s shit in the meat.” So Don is sent to a small Colorado town to investigate the company’s meat-packing plant, but he’s suspicious that everything is being sugar-coated for his visit. In the very town that Don is visiting, Sylvia and her fellow illegal immigrants are working in the very same meatpacking plant. Soon they find that the job is not without significant risks, both from unsafe conditions and a belligerent supervisor. Finally, there’s Amber, a young Mickey’s employee. Amber works in a Mickey’s to earn cash needed to get by, but she’s faced with moral dilemmas popping up at her unhealthy workplace.
There’s plenty of intriguing details in FAST FOOD NATION. I enjoyed watching it as a whole and appreciated the brutally honest nature. If you do some research on fast food as a whole, you’ll find some pretty disturbing stuff. Enough to make you question why people would bother to put that stuff into their bodies. The graphic visuals are unapologetically disgusting and though I don’t know for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the filmmakers used real cow carcasses in the meat-packing plant scenes. It’s clear that Schlosser is co-writing this screenplay with director Linklater, because it almost seems like stretches of words right off the page of his book have been turned into dialogue for the characters. It’s not annoying or forced in any way. These are some very realistic people brought to the screen. Ethan Hawke shows up for a few scenes in a minor role, but makes a big impression.
Undeniably, the best part of the movie comes in one conversation with Bruce Willis’s scene-long character. He delivers a lenghty monologue and the shocking statements coming out of his mouth most likely reflect the empathetic feelings of heads of these big fast-food chains. After all, why should McDonald’s change a damn thing if they keep serving billions around the world? This is all regardless of the disgusting discoveries made at plenty of their restaurants (watch the stellar documentary SUPER SIZE ME for more details on those). The same can be said of any huge fast food chain. The food is crap and they know it’s crap, just like the people eating it know it’s crap. They still eat it (it’s quick and convenient) and the fast food industry is still booming. Willis’s amazing dialogue drives every point of this home and I felt that scene should have been the conclusion of the entire film. This final moment would have sent everything off with a powerful bang.
Instead, FAST FOOD NATION is a mess when it comes to the organization of the three plot-threads. Kinnear’s character of Dan is front-loaded into a majority of the first half and as a result his story concludes at the halfway mark (with Willis delivering that awesome speech). Then the viewer is left with one very solid thread and another plot that goes on well enough, but builds to absolutely nothing as there isn’t a proper conclusion given. This all comes as a result of Linklater and a screenplay focusing far too much on significant stretches dedicated to one specific plot-thread out of the three. The final cut suffers in being uneven and winding up as a good movie, but one with some baggage that’s hard to ignore.
I did think that FAST FOOD NATION is a film that was worth my time, in spite of the aforementioned problems. I might even revisit this one in the future. If all three threads had been balanced out more and one specific storyline had been given a couple of scenes to conclude in a satisfying manner, then this would might have been a great-bordering-on-fantastic film tackling important issues. Instead, it’s a good flick with some interesting things to say, but it ultimately winds up suffering from those damn screenplay problems.