You know what they call a Royale with Cheese in Austin, Texas? The Big One. Mickey's Burgers has been giving the Big One to America for years—that is, serving cheap burgers. Of course, the analog to screwing Americans over is entirely intended by director Richard Linklater in Fast Food Nation, a dramatization of Eric Schlosser's muckraking expose of the globally exported American fast-food industry.
Linklater's second film of the year—after A Scanner Darkly—is equally ambitious and a typically satisfying outing for one of America's most consistent directors. Schlosser, whose background includes playwriting, shares screenplay credit with Linklater, and the two make convincing tour guides, taking us into the stories of the people who drive the business.
The food chain at Mickey's—and partner UniGlobe Meat Packing—runs from industry mover-shakers (Bruce Willis plays one) to executives (like the morally hesitant one played by Greg Kinnear), down to minimum-wage employees (Paul Dano of Little Miss Sunshine plays the worst-case scenario teen minimum-wager). Down the production line, illegal immigrants (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancón), toil under unfair conditions in slaughterhouses. As the seen-it-all rancher, Kris Kristofferson schools Kinnear's wide-eyed exec.
Because it's a Linklater film, Ethan Hawke turns up, as part of a lower-middle-class Texas family that includes Patricia Arquette and Ashley Johnson. The latter plays a Mickey's cashier examining her conscience; when Hawke's character exhorts, "You can change things for the better," she looks to make a change in her life and, maybe, the world (a breath later, Hawke's idealist-realist also tells her, "In a town like this, hope can kill you"). She falls in with a group of feckless protesters, one of whom (played by Lou Taylor Pucci of Thumbsucker) says, "Right now I can't think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act."
Clearly, Fast Food Nation is a polemic, but Linklater and Schlosser are careful to air differing perspectives. Like Traffic and Syriana, the film is more about framing a bigger picture than it is about intimate character detail. Naturally, then, the script dutifully touches on the major points of Schlosser's book: the inferior and possibly dangerous beef ("There's shit in the meat"), harrowing industrial accidents, the franchising of the planet (even in the dead of night, logos blaze neon on the landscape), and rampant crime in those franchises.
Willis' character bemoans Americans as "great big fraidy cats, afraid of everything," a point Linklater and Schlosser underscore when the eco-pranksters fling open a ranch gate only to discover the cows don't want to be saved (yup, the cows are us). When Linklater takes his camera from the sunny, neo-Rockwellian interior of a Mickey's right into a torpid burger patty, he announces that there's something rotten beneath our spotless surfaces.
[For Groucho's interview with Eric Schlosser, click here.]