Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction 2001 best seller, Fast Food Nation, started life at this magazine, but the bucking maverick of a movie he has scripted with director Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly) is cut from a different side of beef. It’s less an expose of junk-food culture than a human drama, sprinkled with sly, provoking wit, about how that culture defines how we live.
The setting is Cody, a fictional Colorado town where everyone eats at Mickey’s, the burger franchise whose meatpacking plant is located there. When company bigwigs find there’s fecal matter in their patties, marketing exec Don Henderson (a sharp Greg Kinnear) is sent to Cody to investigate – meaning find the problem and spin it. Bruce Willis is scarily hilarious as a meat supplier who tells Don that “we all have to eat shit,” as he chows down on “the Big One,” Mickey’s top-selling chunk of scalded cow flesh.
If the movie stayed on topic, we’d have a muckraking probe with roots back to Upton Sinclair’s seminal 1906 book The Jungle and extending to Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 doc Super Size Me. But Schlosser and Linklater are hunting bigger game. The shit in the burger is symptomatic of a larger contamination. There’s Benny (Luis Guzman), who sneaks in illegal immigrants from Mexico to provide the plant with cheap labor. Soon, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her boyfriend, Raul (the excellent Wilmer Valderrama), are on the line, with Sylvia trying to dodge Mike (Bobby Cannavale), the plant manager whose punishment if you don’t put out is to put you on the “gut line,” the dirtiest job in the place.
They also meet two local teens, Amber (Ashley Johnson) and Pete (Paul Dano), who work the counter at Mickey’s, a job that Amber’s Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke) sees as dead-end. Amber joins a youth protest that’s earnest but painfully disorganized: The group naively frees cows while neglecting exploited workers.nd so it goes, as the fabric of an entire society is corrupted by the collusion of unchecked capitalism and government. The film is brimming with grand ambitions but trips on many of them as some characters aren’t given enough screen time to register and others vanish just when you want to learn more about them. At the end, Linklater rubs our faces in the blood and guts as we watch real cows being slaughtered, in wretched conditions, for our dining pleasure. But the shocks that count in Fast Food Nation aren’t on the gut line. They’re in the faces of people whose spirits have been destroyed in the name of good business.