Call it “Big Mac-beth,” the tragic tale of ambition that is the story of American businessman Ray Kroc. The filmmakers telling this story have chosen a slightly less tongue-in-cheek, but still ironic title: The Founder. For while most people casually familiar with the name Ray Kroc probably think of him as the founder of McDonald’s, the term “appropriator” is more appropriate.
Michael Keaton plays Kroc, in a commanding performance that takes advantage of his natural charms and dark undercurrents. When we meet Kroc in 1954, he’s schlepping milkshake mixers to drive-ins around the country, an underdog seeking inspiration. He religiously listens to the record album The Power of the Positive (“Persistence and determination alone are all powerful”) and waits expectantly for his vision to arrive.
The vision comes when Kroc visits a San Bernadino, California drive-in called McDonald’s, run by the brothers Maurice "Mac" McDonald (John Carroll Lynch of Fargo) and Richard "Dick" McDonald (Nick Offerman of TV’s Parks and Recreation). Their fast-food assembly-line system and commitment to quality control make for a well-oiled (or well-ketchuped) operation, and a very popular one. Kroc has his vision: franchise McDonald’s. “You increase supply, demand will follow.”
At first, The Founder plays like an upbeat quintessential capitalist success story, but it doesn’t take long for tensions to emerge between the real founders and Kroc’s small-time but burgeoning corporate raider. Competing business models lead to arguments over threatened compromises to the McDonald brothers’ ideals. Kroc has vision alright, but it’s the vision of how American capitalism went so wrong in the 20th century: branding over product (with its golden arches, “McDonald’s can be the new American church”) and profits over quality (spelling sub-par ingredients), not to mention loyalty.
All the while, Kroc’s pride and ballooning ego contribute to an overweening entitlement, to more and more money and even, perhaps, to another man’s wife if he chooses to win her. “Why should I settle,” Kroc asks, “when other men won’t?” The antiheroic Kroc recalls Walter White of Breaking Bad, except screenwriter Robert D. Siegel skillfully constructs the hero-to-villain character arc into a two-hour film instead of five seasons of television. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling, abetted by Keaton (watch, in the final moments, for Kroc’s flicker of hesitation at his own b.s.).
John Lee Hancock is known for inspirational truth-based Americana (The Rookie), but his white-bread tone productively lulls the audience here, and he smartly uses visual repetitions to “franchise” visual motifs across the film’s landscape. The Founder is slyly scripted and paced, making the ever-insinuating Carter Burwell (Fargo) the perfect choice of composer. A crack supporting cast—including Laura Dern as Kroc’s wife and hopeful "teammate"—bolsters the telling of this story of can-do spirit curdled by ambition and greed, pride in excellence abandoned to the profit motive.