Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fast Food Nation

Not too long into Richard Linklater's multi-threaded fictionalised version of Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-selling book Fast Food Nation, Don Henderson, the marketing man played by Greg Kinnear who works for Michey's Fast Food Restaurant, home of the 'Big One', says to Bruce Willis' piggy Republicanist middleman: "The situation is bleak". Despite the humour that buoys the scene, the sentence resonates like metal because the assertion finds its its referential in the real world, where the violent tragedy behind the fast food economy takes place, perhaps the industry that symbolises most precisely the ugly face of the accelerated capitalism currently dominating the world and destroying it in the process.

Linklater worked with Schossler on the adaptation of the book and the choice of fictionalising the documentary primary text was right: the film is more engaging for that and more emotional, bearing all the hallmarks of Linklater's ingenious way of constructing narratives and timing dialogues. It would be redundant to render the book to film literally; it would risk turning into another 'crockumentary' (to borrow Godard's description of Michael Moore's style) considering its central theme. Fiction is more efficient to carry ideas and as a way to illustrate a reality that increasingly looks like science fiction. It also gave Linklater space to bring up the central moral point of the film: the cruelty against the animals used as prime matter for this type of food, the most painful aspect of the film that passes through one of the thorniest moral dilemmas of our times.

Fast Food Nation is structured as a triptych, each one focusing on the human cogs that make the processing machine move. We start with the Mexican illegal immigrants paying their way into the United States to find work in meat packing plants. Here we meet Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, the expressive actress from Maria Full of Grace, 2004) who is the symbolic heart of the film. Then we meet the industry insiders represented by Kinnear's marketeer who goes to the fictional town of Cody in Colorado to look into a supposed faecal contamination of the meat at the packing unit in the town. The third narrative strand is set among the teenagers who face the public at Mickey's - or white America - protagonised by Amber (Ashley Johnson) and Brian (Paul Dano). It could be argued that the animals locked up in concentration camp conditions in the vast, soulless factory cattle farms, form a fourth narrative strand. The stories never really overlap but are glued together by this capitalist superstructure that sucks everyone in, like a gigantic black hole.

Despite the overall grimness, there are flashes of humour and perhaps hope, although the analogy between human powerlessness and bovine existence is quite clear, exemplified by the frustrated attempt by a group of college students (including one played by Avril Lavigne) to liberate the animals from their confinement - the sedated beasts simply don't move. It's not subtle, as aren't the politically correct cameos delivered by Ethaw Hawke's hippish uncle to Amber and Kris Kristofferson's eco-rancher who gives Kinnear a lesson in manufacturing. But Fast Food Nation has a point to make and it does, as directly as possible.

There is a strangeness and a feeling of desolation that permeates the emotional texture of the film, as if it was set in a gigantic hospital. The scenes in the slaughterhouse provide the strong drama moments, the axis from which everything else hangs. Deeper feelings of sympathy are placed on the immigrants and the animals, the ones really trapped in the belly of the beast. Fast Food Nation is bound to be disliked by many, but no one can doubt the messages it conveys and the integrity of its director.

Fast Food Nation is out now.

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