If you go to see “Fast Food Nation” with a group of friends, there is a good chance that someone — the smart-alecky contrarian; there’s one in every crowd — will bring up the subject of spinach.
Early in the film a fast-food executive named Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is dispatched to Colorado to investigate reports of E. coli bacteria — “fecal coloform counts off the charts!” — in his company’s beef supply. Since the movie, adapted by Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser from Mr. Schlosser’s best-selling investigation of the industrial food chain and directed by Mr. Linklater, dwells on conditions in the feed lots and slaughterhouses where future hamburgers live and die, it can plausibly, if a bit glibly, be interpreted as a brief for vegetarianism.
Hence the impulse to point out that contaminated leafy greens have recently sickened more people than dirty meat. So there. A similar response was evident last spring in Cannes, where several American journalists bragged (or at least joked) about heading for the local McDonald’s after the “Fast Food Nation” screening, as if to prove they had resisted its lessons.
“Most people don’t like to be told what’s best for them,” says Bruce Willis in a sly, brilliant, single-scene cameo, and the suspicion that the movie is doing just that may provoke some reflexive resistance.
Which is too bad, because “Fast Food Nation,” while it does not shy away from making arguments and advancing a clear point of view, is far too rich and complicated to be understood as a simple, high-minded polemic. It is didactic, yes, but it’s also dialectical. While the climactic images of slaughter and butchery — filmed in an actual abattoir — may seem intended to spoil your appetite, Mr. Linklater and Mr. Schlosser have really undertaken a much deeper and more comprehensive critique of contemporary American life.
If it’s true that we are what we eat, then how, this film asks, do we even know who we are? The writer William S. Burroughs once contemplated “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork,” and “Fast Food Nation” aims to produce a similar moment — to shock, to demystify and to force a kind of horrified, questioning clarity.
In what has become the preferred cinematic method for addressing complex social issues — see also “Crash,” “Traffic” and “Babel,” among others — Mr. Linklater’s film tells multiple stories, which radiate like spokes from the hub of a central theme. Don Anderson pokes around in fictional Cody, Colo., trying to balance his search for the truth with an apparent desire not to do anything that might hurt his career.
Meanwhile, a group of Mexican immigrants, having crossed the border illegally, arrives in Cody (Don unknowingly drives by the van transporting them) and takes up dangerous, stomach-turning jobs at the meat-processing plant. And a teenage burger-slinger (who works at one of Don’s franchises after school) undergoes a crisis of conscience when she falls in with a group of anticorporate activists from a nearby college.
Mr. Linklater is a nimble and versatile director, but what he does best — what he seems to like most — is to film people in conversation. His most characteristic movies — “Slacker,” “Before Sunset,” “Waking Life” — consist largely of unfettered, idiosyncratic talk, and “Fast Food Nation” is thick with debate, argument, rumination and repartee. Curiously enough, the talkiness is what saves the movie from turning into a lecture. Its loose, digressive rhythm keeps it tethered to reality, while the dialogue and the easy pace of the scenes allow the characters to register as individuals, not just as types.
It helps that the performances are generally strong. Mr. Kinnear is, yet again, the All-American dad and solid citizen, at once a paragon and a parody, thoroughly decent and just a bit sleazy. Ashley Johnson is completely convincing as Amber, the striving high school student whose idealism is the flip side of her ambition. The only thing Amber wants more than to change the world is to get out of Cody, and one of the film’s quiet insights is that these two desires — to fight the system and to win by its rules — are not necessarily incompatible, though they may seem contradictory.
In other words, when Amber and her newfound comrades sit around the dorm debating strategy and raging against the machine, they are attacking one version of the American dream while embodying another. A more basic instance of that dream motivates Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a young married couple who have crossed the American-Mexican border on foot. While both actors are natural magnets for the sympathy of the audience, Mr. Linklater and Mr. Schlosser resist the impulse to turn them into caricatures of the noble, suffering poor. They are too interesting to be pitiable, just as Bobby Cannavale, as the predatory supervisor at the meat-packing plant, is more than just the sum of his ruthless, despicable actions.
The cast is large — there’s Ethan Hawke! And Kris Kristofferson! — but the crowdedness of “Fast Food Nation” is evidence of its liveliness. (Paul Dano, as one of Amber’s coworkers, and Ana Claudia Talancón, as Sylvia’s wayward sister, deserve special mention.) Everyone in it has something to say, and the central characters face some hard ethical choices set down by the logic of 21st-century consumer capitalism.
The movie does not neglect the mute, helpless suffering of the cows, but it also acknowledges the status anxiety of the managerial class, the aspirations of the working poor (legal and otherwise) and the frustrations of the dreaming young. It’s a mirror and a portrait, and a movie as necessary and nourishing as your next meal.