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Dangerous Health Issues the Focus in "Fast Food Nation"

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
Dangerous Health Issues the Focus in "Fast Food Nation"

DVD Release Date:   March 9, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  November 22, 2006 (wide)
Rating:  R (for disturbing images, strong sexuality, language and drug content)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time: 112 min.
Director:  Richard Linklater
Actors:  Greg Kinnear, Bobby Cannavale, Wilmer Vilderamma, Patricia Arquette, Ashley Johnson, Esai Morales, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Lou Taylor Pucci, Ana Claudia Talancon, Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis.

One hundred years after Upton Sinclair published his epic novel, “The Jungle,” which chronicled the horrors and abuses of the meat-packing industry from an immigrant’s perspective, comes this long-awaited screen version of Eric Schlosser’s blockbuster treatise about the fast-food chains taking over America.

Weaving together multiple story lines, writer-director Richard Linklater introduces us to Don (Greg Kinnear), an earnest marketing executive with “Mickey's,” the popular (and thinly-disguised) fast-food restaurant.  After sniffing a few of the chemically-engineered perfumes used to give the meat aromatic appeal, Don learns that the chain’s best-selling burger, “The Big One” (which he invented), has tested positive for feces contamination.

Don travels to Cody, Colorado to visit the mega-slaughterhouse and packing plant which provides all the meat for Mickey’s.  There, in small-town America, a high school cashier named Amber (Ashley Johnson) rings up Don’s meal while another student (Paul Dano), jealous of the pair’s bantering, spits onto a burned burger before sending it out for Don to eat.  Meanwhile, a Mexican coyote (Luis Guzman) shepherds a group of immigrants across the border, accidentally leaving one behind to die.  The group, which includes Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), her sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) and her young husband (Wilmer Valderrama), ends up in Cody, where they head to work at the meat-packing plant.  Coco – like so many others before her – soon falls prey to the charms (and drugs) of their unscrupulous supervisor (Bobby Canavale).

Don visits a local rancher (Kris Kristofferson), who tells him everything he did not want to know.  The slaughter line at the packing company, he explains, moves so fast that the workers don’t have time to properly gut the cow’s entrails.  As a result, it gets slopped into the meat.  It’s a chronic problem with no easy solution.  At Don’s next meeting, a cocky meat buyer (Bruce Willis) warns Don not to get too involved with the situation.  He also reveals that Don’s boss is about to be exposed for tax fraud.  Soon after, Don packs up and leaves, after suggesting “further testing” on the meat.

In the DVD featurette, Linklater explains his decision to fictionalize Schlosser’s non-fiction book.  He wanted the story to be “more accessible,” he said.  Given the film’s strong socio-political message (which unfortunately drives the narrative); the simple plot lines; and the four cartoons featured in the DVD extras, their target audience appears to teens.  Certainly, things are laid our fairly simply.  As a result, the translation from book to film – despite the strong message – is weak.  This is particularly disappointing given the extraordinarily well-researched revelations contained in the book, which deserve to be widely disseminated.

Still, “Fast Food Nation” communicates its point.  First of all, the filmmakers want us to see that the world, which was previously quite human (as characterized by family farms) is now being run by machines and corporations.  We’re treated to shot after shot of the packing plant (filmed in Mexico, by the way), along with various comments about the mechanization of society – which is deeply connected to our growing corporate culture, whose only goal is profit.  Although this view is a bit too nostalgic (industrialization was very widespread by the mid-1800’s, after all), it’s one that certainly has merit. 

Secondly, just as Sinclair did, Linklater shows us how corporate profits are intricately dependent upon the cheap labor of illegal immigrants.  Brought into this country, usually without any family, they soon discover that they are unable to protest the unsavory conditions, sexual harassment and low wages – much less the extreme workplace dangers – which characterize the meat-packing industry.  Its abuses are painfully spelled out here, with horrifying depictions of a predatory supervisor who takes advantage of young women; workers who turn to drugs to cope with their grinding responsibilities; and brutal amputations on the job that are blamed on the employees (and which, of course, go largely uncompensated).

Linklater allows several plot lines and characters to disappear, such as Don and his boss, and the plotline with Ethan Hawke, who plays Amber’s uncle, seems superfluous.  Linklater’s characters are also thinly drawn.  They’re not caricatures, but symbols, however, and as such, they work – particularly with such great acting from the all-star cast.  Valdaramma doesn’t do much, but Kinnear is perfect as the happy-go-lucky executive.  Cameos by Willis & Kristofferson set the right tone, and the Oscar-nominated Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) is particularly moving as the recently-enlightened immigrant who sheds one solitary tear, at the end of the film, when forced to work on the “kill floor.”

As with its cousin, “Super Size Me,” which focused on the dangerous health issues connected to fast food consumption, you don’t need to be a vegetarian to be horrified by “Fast Food Nation.”  You may still become one, however, after seeing this.  Caveat carnivore.

AUDIENCE:  Adults only

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Audio commentary by director/screenwriter Richard Linklater and author/screenwriter Eric Schlosser
  • “Manufacturing Fast Food Nation” featurette
  • Photo Gallery
  • Flash Animation Films: “The Meatrix,” “The Meatrix II: Revolting,” “The Matrix II ½” and “The Backwards Hamburger”

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Characters smoke pot and drink in several scenes; characters are injured, allegedly due to use of methamphetamine; in other scenes characters refer to drug use.
  • Language/Profanity:   Numerous profanities and obscenities, including multiple uses of the f- word.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Fairly graphic depiction of couple having sex in vehicle, viewed from side but with upper nudity; in another scene a man extorts sex from a married woman (no nudity but graphic position); various references to sex throughout film.
  • Violence:   Reference to workplace dangers including the loss of limb; character with only one arm observes others; man warns people not to “f” with him while waving gun; character is abandoned during desert trek and left to die; character falls into machinery and screams in agony before leg is amputated (very graphic depiction); another character is injured trying to help him escape; cattle are brutally stunned and slaughtered (some while alive), skinned and gutted; many scenes depict copious quantities of animal blood and guts.