People often don’t know what’s good for them. Most of the time, the disconnect can be attributed to a lack of perspective — give someone a short-term solution, and they’ll happily create a long-term problem. It’s a phenomenon of human nature that capitalism has been all too happy to exploit, and thanks to recent “advances” in factory farming, the world is now literally eating itself to death.
So goes the premise of Christopher Quinn’s “Eating Animals,” an urgent but uncertain documentary that amplifies and expounds upon the argument Jonathan Safran Foer laid out in his 2009 book of the same name. That idea explains how we went from living off the land and killing only what we needed to where we are today: Breeding so many pigs that farmers in North Carolina are forced to create Pepto-Bismal-colored pools of “fecal marinade” behind their properties, these pink lagoons of stink and poison seeping into the greater water supply around them. It explains why we inject our cows full of so many antibiotics that their udders burst and the pus drains into the milk we buy, and why chicken farmers suffering under the thumb of their industry’s tournament system are only satisfied with their Godzilla-sized birds when their bodies grow too big for their hearts to sustain.
If these things are gross to read about, they’re a lot grosser to see. And while Quinn doesn’t overdo it with the horror of it all — this is a less oppressive sit than Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!,” a movie which may never actually be available to sit through — “Eating Animals” makes it very clear that meat-eaters are driving a modern holocaust against their dinner. It’s a point that Quinn makes with a light touch, as his film continues Foer’s emphasis on philosophy over propaganda. The occasional narration from producer Natalie Portman is the tetchiest thing here; the righteous anger of her reading gives Quinn the permission he needs to take a more contemplative approach overall (“you are now guarding the fox, not the henhouse” she snarls at the USDA).
And that he does, cutting between old-fashioned Kentucky farmers, a representative from the Waterkeeper Alliance, a contractor for Perdue, and even some archival footage from Colonel Sanders’ childhood in order to trace the various reasons why (and means by) our relationship to the environment isn’t as humane as it used to be. There’s nauseating footage of a cow that’s been raped so hard she can no longer walk, and — of course — a sequence where someone encounters some angry rent-a-cops while trying to sneak a camera inside a factory farm (the laws protecting these places from outside surveillance or basic supervision are troubling, to say the least).
Quinn has clearly done the work to establish meaningful relationships with many of his subjects, and you can see the pain and concern in their eyes. Still, “Eating Animals” feels every bit as scattershot as it sounds, the film’s moral argument cornering you from all sides rather than attacking head-on. To a certain extent, that’s by design. This is the rare documentary to recognize the sad truth that out of sight is out of mind — that a nonstop montage of grotesque imagery may not leave the lasting impression that it should.
We’ve become so estranged from the things we consume that most people can’t be expected to sustain the connection between the Big Mac they’re eating and the cow it came from (so far as McDonald’s is concerned, that’s a feature, not a bug). It’s not that we don’t know, it’s that we choose to forget. The fact that we’re even capable of doing so is a horror unto itself, our treatment of animals a clear bellwether for our own dwindling humanity. A tragic irony becomes clear: Animals can only live in the moment at hand, while humans have removed themselves from the present completely.
By articulating this problem, “Eating Animals” inherently questions its own value — what’s the efficacy of a doc like this when you’re fighting against massive systems, and even human nature itself? The hopeful bounce of Daniel Hart’s original music doesn’t change the fact that change seems impossible. Quinn’s sensible approach to meat-eaters helps the film remain accessible (to paraphrase the book: eating meat is circumstantially bad, but not intrinsically bad), but the scale and sheer inertia of the problem is still enough to make the average viewer’s eyes glaze over. This ambling, deadly serious film doesn’t really go out of its way to keep you engaged (even though you’re sort of proving its point every time you tune out).
If it’s surprisingly hard to shake the solutions that Quinn leaves with us, that’s because “Eating Animals” doesn’t just present its problems in ethical terms. The further the film goes along, the more it frames the move away from factory farming as an environmental and economic necessity. As a planet-saving bit of common sense. Agricultural conglomerates are mulching America’s farmers into dust, and regular people are losing money by paving the road to hell. But Quinn argues that if you give people a choice — or liberate them from the illusion that they don’t have one — they’ll do the right thing. They’ll buy ethically raised meat, feed on plant-based proteins, and take smaller bites. Moral clarity alone won’t fix the issue, but if you bring the public to water, they’ll drink from the healthier pond.
“Eating Animals” opens in theaters on Friday, June 15.