Burger executive Don Henderson (Kinnear) travels to the packing plants and ranches of Colorado to investigate claims that there is excrement in the meat. His story soon links with that of burger-flippers, illegal immigrants and ranchers.
Recent history has seen the rise of the one-for-them, one-for-me philosophy, as practised by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Guillermo del Toro. But when it comes to Richard Linklater, the lines are rather less clearcut. Just as his studio pictures — School Of Rock or Bad News Bears — are stamped with a unique offbeat sensibility, his one-for-me movies don’t always fit the too-strange-for-the-studios mould. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that the brain behind the wilfully culty A Scanner Darkly also conceived the heartfelt romance of Before Sunrise/Sunset.
Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book of the same name, Fast Food Nation is another surprise, marking a return to the director’s filmmaking roots. Indeed, fans of Linklater will need to cast their minds back as far as Dazed And Confused to get a handle on this sprawling affair. Though seemingly a straight narrative, Fast Food Nation pulls a Psycho-esque stunt midway through when apparent leading man Kinnear vanishes from the mix. In his place, Linklater refers us instead to Amber (the engaging Johnson), a teen whose storyline bears little relation to the one that’s been developed, an intrigue involving contaminated meat. Suddenly that’s all gone, and instead we get the view of a disillusioned small-town kid on the burger-bar floor.
It takes a little while to catch on, but this is really where Fast Food Nation starts to make its point. This isn’t a shrill vegetarian rant, or a trite anti-corporate polemic, but a fascinating attempt to engage with all areas of a complex situation, a study of the business of beef, from farming and production to marketing, sale and consumption. And key to this is the film’s framing device, involving migrant Mexicans making the hazardous trek across the border to find work in slaughterhouses. Though the bulk of anti-fast food arguments involve the ethics of conscience and health, Linklater’s film concentrates on the human cost, depicting how meat eats people rather than the other way round. Like the climactic scenes of cattle-culling (not recommended for the squeamish), it’s not a pretty sight, but Linklater has created another wayward one-for-me, a cautionary tale with something for all of us to chew on.
A gross and engrossing attempt to humanise a hot-button subject, using a star-sprinkled cast to reveal some unpalatable truths.