Directed by Richard Linklater
Fast Food Nation feels most similar, among Linklater’s movies, to his 1996 film SubUrbia. It’s definitely a Linklater film, something that takes time to reveal itself, but it’s a critique of our society, much as that earlier film was. Told through an ensemble cast, with loosely or completely unconnected stories, Fast Food Nation is occasionally funny, partially inspiring, mostly critical and eventually horrifying. One of the stories, following a group of Mexican immigrants sneaking across the border, is basically a horror film.
The film feels like Slacker, his breakout 1991 film which has no discernible plot and no main characters. Like that film, this one bounces from person to person, though this time we follow them long enough to follow their stories to the conclusion. At the same time, our initial protagonist, Don (Greg Kinnear), disappears halfway through the film before he returns for a post credit scene.
Don works in marketing at the corporate office for Mickey’s, a fast food chain that might as well be McDonald’s. When he’s told about a study that found fecal matter in their burger meat, he’s sent to Colorado to visit the company from which they buy their meat. His journey escorts us throughout various stages of the Fast Food company chain. Through him we’re introduced to Amber (Ashley Johnson), a high school student who makes minimum wage working as a cashier at Mickey’s. Her coworkers, two cooks, are also in high school and the perfect image of the type of thankless kids working a thankless job who you’d never want making your food.
Don’s trip involves touring the meat-packing facility, which looks great to him, and meeting with Harry (Bruce WIllis), the man who supplies them they’re meat and suggests that the problem to this fecal matter issue is just to cook the meat. He complains about people who complain about shit, saying ‘you gotta eat a little shit’ once in a while, or something along those lines. After this meeting, the climax of Don’s journey, he returns home. Then the rest of the stories, the more interesting segments, play out. Don is just our tour guide into this world.
When we’re introduced to Don, we’re also introduced to a group of Mexican immigrants on their long walk through the desert. The two most important people here are Raul and Silvia (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno), a young couple with their eyes set on making money however they can in America. They’re mostly escorted to Colorado blindly, with little idea of where they’re headed or even what they’re going to do once they’re there.
As Raul and a friend are taken to the meat-packing facility, they remain clueless as to what they’re about to do. It turns out they will clean the factory floor, a job that smells terrible, but which he claims isn’t so bad when he shows Sylvia how much money they’ve made. Soon Sylvia will go to work at a motel, unable to stand the conditions in the factory, made hard to stomach because of the smell as well as the sexually abusive foreman Mike (Bobby Cannavale) and a rampant drug problem. Many of the workers use amphetamines just to make it through their shift each day.
The other important character is Amber, the teenager who works at Mickey’s. She never seems too attached to her job, but she defends it when others around her ask how she could possibly work there. Her fear, we soon learn, is that she will remain stuck in this small town. After a visit by her uncle (Ethan Hawke), telling her to think for herself and follow her passions, she finally quits, much to her manager’s chagrin. See, he had her pegged for management material, and when she turns her back on this, he’s offended. Sometimes the characterizations, like this, feel a little heavy-handed, just like the disgruntled teenaged cook (Paul Dano) or a few more of the teenagers we’ll meet who feel like they’re just fulfilling a mandated role for the movie.
And maybe they are mandated roles. Based on a book, Fast Food Nation attempts to cover a lot of ground. Linklater’s personal touch is most evident in scenes of the teenagers expressing current dissatisfaction or plans for the future as well as in the long scene between Ethan Hawke’s uncle and Amber. His characters ruminate on life, expressing their still-developing philosophies, and their arguments all feel inspired. These are people trying to live, they just don’t yet know how.
Eventually Amber joins a group of kids who want to send a message to corporations like Mickey’s. They settle on a plan, suggested by Amber herself, of cutting down a fence and letting the cattle roam free. They’re idealistic but a little misguided, and their plan quickly fails. They begin to wonder why the cattle didn’t roam free as anticipated, and they then wonder if maybe the cattle are too used to their captivity to leave, kind of like Amber herself.
Raul’s friend suffers a violent, stomach-churning accident that severs his left leg, and in the process of helping him, Raul falls a short distance, injuring his back. Sylvia attends to him in the hospital where she learns that he was taking amphetamines, something she can’t believe. Raul is fired, and to make money, Sylvia must beg Mike for a job. We have seen Mike’s ongoing relationship with Sylvia’s sister, Coco. It’s a relationship that has left her battered and strung out on the same drugs Raul was apparently taking.
Mike, we know, is not a good guy. He tells Sylvia he can’t do anything for her, but then she sleeps with him, and Sylvia is given a job… on the kill floor. We have heard multiple people refer to the kill floor, but it’s not until the final sequence of the film that we see it. Sylvia puts on her uniform like a soldier headed off to war, and she looks on in horror at the goings on of the kill floor. We see actual cattle killed and bled as part of an incredibly mundane routine. It’s appalling to us, and to Sylvia, as shown through her wide-eyed gaze as well as the haunting musical score. It’s impactful because it’s brutal.
Sylvia is left at her new job, pulling out the cattle’s kidneys. Mike tells her it’ll be okay, that she just needs to breathe through her mouth.
Richard Linklater’s films are typically inspiring, even if on a small level. They’re often about characters who like to talk about life and ruminate on our place in the universe. Where films like Slacker or Dazed and Confused as well as the Before trilogy feel inherently optimistic. A film like this one, or SubUrbia are the antitheses. These stories are an indictment of the world we live in. The more positive films celebrate the characters, and these films critique the worlds of those characters but not the characters themselves. He always seems to be saying that people will always try their best, but sometimes the situation isn’t bearable.
Amber learns a tough lesson, her optimism seemingly smothered by the end, Raul lays on a couch, immobile and miserable, Sylvia is flat out traumatized, and when we last see Don, before the post credits scene, he has lost all hope, unable to solve the only problem assigned to him.
These characters all end up disillusioned by the world we live in. This corporate, fast-food society is presented as some sort of dystopian future, but it’s very much our world. I was struck by a scene in which Raul and his friend are driven to work in the back of a pickup truck. They silently observe the passing landscape at night, featuring one fast food chain after another. In another context, maybe with no context, there is nothing spectacular about this image. But after having seen them trudge through the desert for a long time, despite the hardships of that landscape this manufactured one feels incredibly hollow. They don’t look at it with any disdain, in fact Raul later expresses some amazement at the view of a mostly unspectacular, suburban vista. But the intention is for us to look at this landscape in a new light.
Later, Ethan Hawke’s character will discuss how amazed everyone was when the first Mickey’s opened up in town, but then it became a plague, he jokes, when the 400th one opened.
The final shot of the film, again before the credits, is of Luis Guzman, the guy who helps immigrants across the border. He welcomes a couple kids, nearing the end of their long journey into the U.S., with two kids meals. It’s a sinister final shot, made more sinister by the overt bright and colorful template of a Mickey’s paper bag.