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November 17, 2006

Linklater changes course with Fast Food Nation

Richard Linklater has always been hard to pin down. His early ’90s left-field classics Slacker and Dazed and Confused stand in stark contrast to his more recent Hollywood cash cows School of Rock and Bad News Bears, but he has still maintained his indie sensibilities with films like Waking Life and Before Sunset. 2006 may have been Linklater’s highest profile year, as he has released two highly anticipated movies: an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and a fictionalized account of Eric Schlosser’s bestseller Fast Food Nation.

I met with Linklater in the penthouse suite of the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Chicago to interview him about Fast Food Nation. That setting stood in stark contrast to the David vs. Goliath ethos of Fast Food Nation, which had ranchers, teenagers, and illegal immigrants all fighting against the corporate monolith Mickey’s, a fictionalized fast food chain. Linklater was ready to admit that this was his most political film yet.

“It’s the kind of political movie I could see myself doing,” Linklater said. “The people in the film aren’t so political, although that’s not totally true, the college activists are political. But the other characters aren’t thinking in political terms, they are just living their lives. I think it falls into the category of the politics of everyday life. But you can’t see the movie—a thinking person can’t see the movie and not see it in political terms.”

Still, Linklater didn’t seem to think such a jump was out of line with his past films. “There’s politics in and around my other films; there’s probably an anti-authoritarian streak through most of them, maybe some disgruntlement certainly. But it’s not like the whole film, it’s maybe a character or some bits and pieces. I don’t know, these things are personal to me.…The truth is, I grew up doing those jobs. There’s a lot of humor to be had in these grim environments.”

Fast Food Nation is more of an ensemble piece than a star-dominated film, although names like Greg Kinnear, Ethan Hawke, and even Bruce Willis signed up. It plays off a connected lives theme similar to that of Crash. We encounter Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón), Mexican illegal immigrants who work under brutal conditions at the Mickey’s meatpacking plant. Kinnear plays a marketing hotshot straight from ESPN who investigates claims that Mickey’s latest burger contains feces. Along the way, he meets a disenfranchised rancher (Kris Kristofferson), a cynical Mickey’s manager (Esai Morales), and the outrageous meatpacking manager Harry (Willis, who, according to Linklater, took the part just to deliver the line, “There’s probably a little bit of shit in this burger”).

Despite the all-star cast, by the end of the film, the story of Amber (Ashley Johnson), a youthful, idealistic Mickey’s cashier, begins to take over. We follow Amber as she talks with her radical uncle (Hawke) and becomes awed by the lives of college students. Linklater seemed to be fine with recognizing several actors as playing critical roles, citing “[Catalina], Wilmer, and Claudia—that story is a through line—but Amber too. I don’t really consider anyone a main character.”

Part of the problem with the transition from a factual book to a fictional film was preventing his characters from acting as vehicles for Schlosser’s arguments. Indeed, that’s one of the movie’s major weaknesses, and Linklater seemed to recognize this issue. “It was kind of Eric’s idea to throw out the book altogether and make it about these characters.” Linklater said. “So you make it ‘of the book.’ But I think the more you concentrate on the character and try and stay true to a life... There’s no room in a life just to get on a soap box and start preaching or saying too much.”

Despite so many competing themes, the story of Raul, Sylvia, and Coco is perhaps the most striking. They show the dark side of fast food we don’t imagine when eating a burger, as the factory workers deal with drug use, high risk for injury, sexual harassment, and rather gruesome responsibilities. Fast Food Nation climaxes with Sylvia being forced to work at the slaughtering dock removing kidneys. We then see the actual process of turning cow into burger.

“My perverse set up there was to make it narratively satisfying, although aesthetically it wouldn’t be satisfying,” Linklater argued. “The storytelling had to seem essential. A: You had to care about Catalina’s character. And B: You had to kind of complete a story that hadn’t been told the whole way. So that’s why people don’t necessarily run out of the theater. And again, the way I shot it was pretty abstract. You get bits and pieces, but it’s the reality, it’s just the flat out reality.”

Perhaps that sequence was a little unfair—it’s more a case for vegetarianism than for fighting fast food companies—but it fits with the ongoing parallels being drawn between consumers and the slaughtered cows; in an earlier scene, Amber and her college friends break the fence of the cow ranch, but given the chance of freedom, the cows don’t budge.

Fast Food Nation is not a perfect movie, and unfortunately doesn’t hold up as well in comparison to its natural counterpart, Supersize Me. Nonetheless, it’s yet another new direction for one of today’s most adventurous American directors, and though it may be preachy, it’s preaching to the right choir.