Everything about Richard Linklater's terrific new movie "Fast Food Nation" is something of a red herring. A film about huge subjects writ tiny, this freeform fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser's best-selling nonfiction expose of the meat and processed food industries is not really about the meat at all. It's a survey of the current culture: big, sprawling, and endlessly frightening, told via the minutiae of everyday life, as it's lived in one nowheresville Colorado town.
Usually, this kind of film, showing the "underbelly" of American society, tries to stun audiences into submission. Instead, Linklater gently sways us with the harsh truths of everyday living; it's telling that he and his screenwriter cite as a major influence Sherwood Anderson's intricate, rambling novel Winesburg, Ohio rather than the increasingly mundane Crash-Babel-Traffics of the ever-more-globalized, and ever smaller-minded, movie world.
Probably Linklater's best film not contained within a limited time frame, "Fast Food Nation" surveys, alternately with sickened passivity and rigorous debate, a firmly entrenched hierarchical system that allows for exploitation right down the line. Greg Kinnear's suitably shocked fast-food executive Don Henderson investigates the high count of fecal matter in his company Mickey's burgers; his journey to the Colorado meat-packing plant intersects with that of two illegal Mexican immigrants (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama) who are given a more clandestine back-entry. Meanwhile, caught in the middle of all this is Amber (a phenomenally appealing Ashley Johnson), a studious, regular high-schooler, living in a tiny home with a single mom (Patricia Arquette) and working for low wages at the local Mickey's. The social and financial repercussions bounce off each other, yet Linklater presents this not as calamitous, but as sadly routine (even the cows don't want to run free when a gang of naive, sprouting PETAs try and free them from their fences). Despite the occasional pause for polemic (Ethan Hawke's delightful small role as Amber's rollicking, free-thinking uncle, goes a long way to bringing "Fast Food Nation" back to pontificating Linklater-land), the director lets this all play out with casual outrage.
"Fast Food Nation" is a film about shit, but it doesn't rub our face in it. Linklater and Schlosser's sly, sad vision is about so much more than hamburgers: logos, prefabricated homes, frozen dinners, Nike, Chili's, the Sunglass Hut, all with the stamp of anonymity. Scene after scene rings uncomfortably true: one kid bemoans that if only he could get out of his dead-end fast-food service job, he could make it all the way up to...Banana Republic. It's a nice companion piece to his "SubUrbia," but it's more direct, devastating, and less predicated on the naivete of postadolescence. Linklater and Schlosser refrain from making Kinnear's suit-and-tie man out to be a soulless stooge. It's a world of shit for him, too: and his ultimate defeatism (he stops his inquests about halfway through and literally disappears from the movie) attains almost tragic heights.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]