It takes all kinds of people to bring you your meal at a fast food restaurant. Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and Coco (Anna Claudia Tanacón) are two sisters escaping from a life of poverty in Mexico as illegal immigrants in the United States, and they and many like them end up in the fast food industry performing the lowliest of tasks there to ensure the meat is processed and reaches the outlets where it is cooked. However, at the other end of the scale is executive Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), who is high up in the echelons of the Mickey's chain and is sent to investigate a problem: the meat they sell is contaminated and the customers are literally eating shit.
Fast Food Nation the Eric Schlosser book was non-fiction, outlining the unpleasant truths about where people's burgers come from and what exactly it is they are consuming. For the film version, he and director Richard Linklater offered a fictionalised story to place the facts in a context, but in the process made what looked more like a feature length public information film that just happened to have a sprinkling of big stars in its cast - look, isn't that Bruce Willis? And Avril Lavigne? Why yes, yes it is.
Those celebrities can be a distraction, so it's probably the tale of the immigrants that compels the most. They are the ones who work at the meat processing plants for more than they can get at home, but considerably less than the average American wage. As Sylvia and Coco are exploited, Don realises that the business he is in is partly involved in concealment, hiding the truth about precisely how unhealthy it is and leaving the story disillusioned, although how he got to be that successful in such a company without knowing the downside is not entirely clear, or convincing.
Don visits a Mickey's in Colorado, where the meat packing plant is locally, and unbeknownst to him has his burger spat in by one of the resentful employees there. It turns out this is the least of his worries as he goes to see beleagured rancher Kris Kristofferson, who makes plain the way the meat suppliers only care about making money, and are quite likely to resort to threats if anybody challenges the status quo. Not only that, but a put upon staff ensures that shit accidentally gets into the product every day because with all those animals being cut open in those conditions it is inevitable.
Yet a conversation with one of the bosses (Willis) has Don accused of being un-American for suggesting that the injustice and poor hygiene inherent in the system should be changed, and the overall message is that it's in too many businesses' interests for it to be otherwise. Even when Mickey's employee Amber (Ashley Johnson) gives up her job and joins the activists their complete failure to free a herd of cows serves as a metaphor for a public that doesn't care where their food comes from as long as it's cheap and convenient, even if it's deeply harmful not only to their bodies but their society. There's an adage that filmmakers are better to show than tell, but here it's the parts where they inform that are the best, meaning you might be better off reading the book. Will the film change any minds? Not enough to make a difference, one suspects. Music by Friends of Dean Martinez.
[Tartan's Region 2 DVD has interviews and a trailer as extras. Great menu, too.]
Skilled indie director, specialising in dialogue-driven comedy-drama. Linklater's 1989 debut Slacker was an unusual but well-realised portrait of disaffected 20-something life in his home town of Austin, Texas, while many consider Dazed and Confused, his warm but unsentimental snapshot of mid-70s youth culture, to be one of the best teen movies ever made. Linklater's first stab at the mainstream - comedy western The Newton Boys - was a disappointment, but Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape and the animated Waking Life are all intelligent, intriguing pictures.