Fast Food Nation(Fox Home Entertainment, 3.6.2007)
Of the three supposedly dodgy U.S. competition entries from 2006's Cannes Film Festival, I've seen two... and they both kick ass. Marie Antoinette is a masterpiece of revisionist period filmmaking and Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation is the perfect movie to check out while Robert Altman's death is still somewhat fresh in our minds (Richard Kelly's yet-to-be-released Southland Tales, the third American entry from 2006, still awaits a release date). Linklater has created a mini-Altmanesque world out of Eric Schlosser's seemingly unfilmable, muckracking book on America's fast food industry, published in 2001.
Linklater's novel approach -- in multiple senses of the word -- fictionalizes Schlosser's non-fiction expose (Schlosser co-wrote the script with Linklater), breaking the narrative into three inter-connecting stories focused around the made-up town of Cody, Colorado. A group of newly arrived, illegal alien Mexicans find work in a meat-packing plant, a plant which in turn Greg Kinnear's character investigates for causing fecal matter to appear in the meat patties of the company he works for, a fictional fast food chain called Mickey's. A third story involves a teenage employee (Ashley Johnson) of Mickey's, who becomes inspired by a visit from her uncle (played by Ethan Hawke, who's excellent in his fifteen or so minutes onscreen) and decides to quit her job to "find herself" in general and, more specifically, help free cattle from a large cattle ranch outside of Cody.
This style of storytelling has already been emplyed in many recent films, namely Traffic and Syriana, so what makes Fast Food Nation so special? Three particular sequences come to mind. The first, which I'll call "The American Dream Sequence," unfolds as follows: after two months of making ten dollars an hour (and losing thirty-five percent of it to instant cash marts for not being able to open a bank account due to his illegal status in the U.S.), Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) takes his wife Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) to dinner at an Applebee's-style restaurant, then out for a walk.
They are well-dressed and visually fit right in, but something deeply sad emerges once they order the meal. Raul barely orders two chicken salads and two Cokes then gets completely confused when the waitress goes off-script and asks a question about appetizers, obviously having been coached ahead of time by a friend.
After the meal, as if willing the illusion and allure of the American Dream into reality, he repeatedly calls the meal "fantastic, the whole thing was fantastic," whenever his wife criticizes it. Raul then changes the subject, noticing a huge Chevy truck in a parking lot, saying that one day he will own one. There's something deeply sad about the denial going on in this sequence, but in a way, it's hard to tell what's sadder: that the characters want The American Dream so badly or that The American Dream, when laid bare from an outsider's perspective, looks like nothing but a series of stupid, packaged products and experiences that can't help but allure those who don't know better and slowly drain the souls out of those already hooked, but too complacent to question it.
This insider's/outsider's perspective on the American Dream is expanded with Greg Kinnear's character, who gains a consciousness only to lose it when he realizes how much he stands to lose if he steps outside of "the machine."
The second sequence involves a group of idealistic, teenage activists sawing a thick metal fence open, giving a huge pen of cattle -- who will soon be turned into burgers -- the opportunity to roam into freer pastures. Instead, the cattle stand there, becoming agitated by the activists who try to will the cows and bulls towards the exit. This is an effective metaphor for "group think" in culture at large and perfectly applies to the film's message of how impossible it is to change a massive system in small ways, especially when that system is so enormous and benefits so many. Even when fences are broken down, cattle prefer not to move to happier pastures because they don't even know how to anymore or they would rather keep their surroundings familiar, no matter how grim.
The final sequence involves an extended argument between Greg Kinnear's character and a character played by Bruce Willis. In this sequence, Linklater pulls-off the ballsiest filmmaking move I've seen in a long time, putting the actively vocal Republican supporter, Bruce Willis, in a role defending not only the fast food industry in general, but how it's good to eat a bit of shit now and then (literally and figuratively).
Remember, Willis was one of the few celebrities to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In other words, Willis believes what he's saying when he tells Kinnear that burgers are cooked to take care of bacterial/fecal problems and that Americans have become soft because of safety and sanitary standards. And yet, he's also an extremely popular film actor and initially welcoming presence when he appears onscreen in his lone scene in the film. This is an extremely clever use of a well-known star persona and their personal politics to genuinely complicate a political movie.
Crazier still? Linklater lets Willis win the argument, not only in the way the scene is shot, but in the way Willis aggressively refuses to back down, laying out a series of points defending his argument. Willis isn't a privately liberal actor cast to secretly align with the film's overall politics, lit in harsh light and given cliched lines to make him into the evil face of "corporate America." Willis is a familiar face, shot in full daylight in a pleasant-looking restaurant, casually eating a burger and sipping a beer as he lets loose on his rant. It's an incredible scene, regardless of whether one agrees with Willis or not. I personally think the logic he presents is very sketchy, but the way it's presented in the film borders on convincing propaganda.
The commentary track by Linklater and Schlosser balances production anecdotes with additional information about the woes of the fast food industry. Of particular interest, Linklater describes an abandoned David Lynch-ian opening to the film in which a camera would have moved inside a cooked burger and revealed all of the microbes and organisms still alive inside the burger.
An hour-long making of featurette is revealing in that Linklater and Schlosser both admit that Schlosser's excellent source material was all but forgotten in writing the screenplay, which only gives additional ammo to those who feel this film is a disastrous, half-assed example of disciplined storytelling. That said, even if you aren't as enthusiastic about Fast Food Nation as I am -- and chances are you won't be, as no one I've talked to yet has much good to say about it -- you may find some fast food for thought to chew on in Linklater's film. -- Jason Woloski