Linklater who, along with Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant, has staked out a particular outpost on the indie-studio border here takes a cleaver to the great American hamburger. One might wish that his movie had honed its satiric edge. Still, as blunt as Fast Food 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, Fast Food Nation opens with a slow zoom into the fresh-charred heart of a greasy, gristle-flecked beef patty. The thing looks disgusting long before the film establishes 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 ("Home of the Big One") as a metaphor for American life. A cheerful Mickey's marketer (Greg Kinnear) learns that, for all the engineered slogans, scientific packaging, and artificial aromas, lab tests show 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 employee (former child actress Ashley Johnson) turned eco-activist.
A more materialist (and successful) ensemble film than the mystical Babel (everyone here is connected through the same economic system), Fast Food 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. In this, Linklater follows Sinclair: The Jungle, which also focused on immigrant workers, was intended not so much as an attack on the meatpacking industry as a socialist jeremiad against capitalism itself.
Linklater's valiant panorama overflows with good intentions, and it's graphic enough to put you off beef, but its most galvanizing scene effectively undermines the argument. Bruce Willis has a lip-smacking cameo as the voice of cynical realism, 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."
Meanwhile, the slaughterhouse is rife with exploitation and danger. This is where Linklater finds his melodrama, following the fate of three Mexican illegals fresh meat for the machine. The most painfully naïve is played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, the open-faced Colombian actress Oscar-nominated for her role in Maria Full of Grace. The despoliation of Moreno's grave, clear-eyed child of nature is the movie's emotional crux. Her season in hell is the real thingsentenced to the killing floor, pulling kidneys amid torrents of blood, her comradely gaze clouded with ammonia tears.
That this horrific sequence was actually (and perhaps necessarily) shot in a Mexican meat plant doesn't exactly contradict Linklater's polemic that we are what we eat, but it does complicate things.