Richard Linklater's "Fast Food Nation" is major. It's an angry movie that could shame a Big Mac lover into having a salad. Yet while it feels like a call to arms, the movie's glamourless style and the conditions it describes are so stark you go home spent. That's an outcome more American directors should risk.
Linklater has fashioned Eric Schlosser's exhaustive nonfiction bestseller about the bloody tentacles of the fast-food industry into a morality play about the vicious circle of consumption that puts the worker in the maw of the corporation.
Where Schlosser traveled the world, Linklater settles in Colorado and the American Southwest, his class-sensitive material reaching for the scornful heights of Sinclair Lewis.
The movie opens with a slow tracking shot inside a Mickey's, a fictional fast-food chain, which trails McDonald ' s and Burger King but is eager to top them. The camera pans down into a fat, oily patty, the way melodramas pull into a star's face before they flash back to tell her story.
Linklater, who wrote the movie with Schlosser, gives us the history of that hamburger and others like it. We're taken from the cattle ranches to the slaughterhouse where the meat is ground, pressed, frozen, and stacked like enormous pink poker chips, to the homes of the disaffected kids who flip those patties even after they've dropped them on the floor. (The sound of impact evokes an air hockey match).
We drop in on Mickey's marketing meetings, and also follow a Mickey's suit named Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) as he sniffs new sandwich flavor samples fresh from the chemical lab. He then makes his way west to investigate a nasty rumor: the Mickey Burger may contain feces.
The movie's scope pulls back further. The jokey shot abruptly following the greasy opening is of a dog running on the streets of a Mexican border town, where a handful of men and women are about to cross into America. Most of them will wind up at Uniglobe, a vast, immaculate meat-packing plant full of gleaming chrome. The complex's workers are predominantly Mexican immigrants and the floor supervisor (Bobby Cannavale) threatens to make errant meat cutters pull kidneys.
The most virtuous of the immigrants, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), quits almost immediately and takes a job cleaning hotel rooms. But her husband (Wilmer Valderrama ) and her wilder sister (Ana Claudia Talancón) stay on.
"Fast Food Nation" has the dramatic flatness and willful lack of personality of some documentaries -- or at least how Linklater thinks a documentary should be. The movie nonetheless feels like both a work of investigative journalism and an immense human-interest story, veering into muckraking, horror, teen comedy, and what passes for "Twilight Zone" science fiction.
Linklater's assets here are his keen intelligence and his long career as a chronicler of Americans living against the system. At last, the young slackers he made famous in "Slacker" and "Waking Life" try striking back against the empire. The results, of course, are dispiriting.
But fruitless revolutions are nothing new. When a couple of former anarchists (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) reminisce about their youthful exploits, you understand why a generation of young people never left their sofas.
The director is delicate enough never to bash you upside the head with his big ideas, the way other omnibus pictures like "Babel" and "Crash" do. While they purport to be about fate, destiny is mostly a matter of manipulative screenwriting.
"Fast Food Nation" is a movie about the socioeconomic limits on human action. Audaciously, the film insists we're not terribly different from the droves of cows in the picture. As Linklater and Schlosser devote a lot of time to the immigrants' personal struggles and to Arquette's burger-flipper daughter (Ashley Johnson) who inherits her mother's social conscience, the movie imparts a kind of damning hopelessness that swells to tragic proportions.
Eventually, we're taken where we feared to tread: Uniglobe's "kill floor," whose horrors Sylvia witnesses after an unfortunate turn of events. Moreno has the perfect face for conveying such a sight. Her seeming goodness exacerbates the cruelty of the severed heads in bins and innards speeding down slides. All the movie's heartbreak and rage well up in her eyes.
So does something else in this unforgettable moment: a moral defeat. Virtue is something the rich don't have and the poor here simply can't afford to keep.