Fast Food Nation, directed by Richard Linklater from Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-selling exposé of the McDonald's conspiracy, is an anti-commercial. It's designed to kill desire and deprogram the viewer's appetite. Linklater here takes a cleaver to the great American hamburger. One might wish that his movie had honed its satiric edge. Still, as blunt as Nation is, it's also a surprising piece of social criticism to emerge (like Borat) from the status quo folks at Fox.
Timed for the centennial of Upton Sinclair's classic muckraker The Jungle, as well as Thanksgiving, Nation opens with a slow zoom into the fresh-charred heart of a greasy, gristle-flecked beef patty. The thing looks disgusting long before it's established that any individual burger is the ground residue of many, many messily butchered animals (plus their hormones and the contents of their intestines), given a dollop of extra fat, injected with chemical perfume, and possibly dipped in floor dirt or garnished with an employee's loogie.
So much for the micro: Linklater is actually after bigger game. He uses the scarcely fictionalized Mickey's franchise as a metaphor for American life. A cheerful Mickey's marketer (Greg Kinnear) learns that "there's shit in the meat." His investigatory mission to the mega–packing plant in Colorado intersects with the stories of the Mexican illegal immigrants who work there, as well as that of a Mickey's register girl (former child actress Ashley Johnson) turned eco-activist.
A more materialist (and successful) ensemble film than the mystical Babel, in that everyone is connected through the same economic system, Nation is exotic for being a movie about work. Its characters struggle with some of the world's dirtiest jobs—morally as well as physically. Linklater's panorama is overflowing with good intentions, and it's graphic enough to put you off beef, even before reaching the plant "killing floor." The movie is valiant, if curiously anemic. Its most galvanizing scene effectively undermines the argument: Bruce Willis has a lip-smacking cameo as a Mickey's operative who mocks American 'fraidy cats and shocks Kinnear with the smirking assertion that "we all have to eat a little shit from time to time." (The other featured stars are predictably liberal: Kris Kristofferson as a righteous cattle rancher threatened by unscrupulous developers; Ethan Hawke as a happy hippie, a cabinetmaker who argues unconvincingly for the nonconformist life.)
It's in the slaughterhouse that Linklater finds exploitation, danger, and melodrama, as he follows the fate of three Mexican illegals—fresh meat for the machine. The most painfully naive is played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, the open-faced Colombian actress Oscar-nominated for her role in Maria Full of Grace; her character here deserves the same sobriquet. The despoliation of Moreno's grave, clear-eyed child of nature is the movie's emotional crux. Her season in hell is the real thing—sentenced to the killing floor, pulling kidneys amid torrents of blood, her comradely gaze clouded with ammonia tears. J. HOBERMAN