If you’ve never read the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, get to the bookstore right now. You’ll never feel the same about fast food again. Or most other food, for that matter. But I’m not here to review the book (which is wonderful), I’m here about the movie. I was interested to see this film, because the book is written in an expose journalistic style, and the movie sells itself as a fictional account. How do the two work together?
So, I put some food in my new solar cooker (more about this in my next post!) and settled in to watch. While there are gruesome scenes that leave you depressed, the movie is not nearly so hard-hitting as the book. It starts with a coyote leading several migrants over the border to seek a new life in America. Predictably, one doesn’t make it (or so you assume… this is something you will have to do a lot in this film if you want any questions “answered” in your head), illustrating the risks that these hopeful workers face even before reaching their grueling factory life. Across the country, a new VP of Marketing for the fictional Mickeys fast food chain gets an assignment to chase down rumors that there are high levels of eColi in the beef. Basically, there’s shit in the meat, and management wants to know either why, or how that info got out there in the first place. So he travels to small-town Cody to investigate, meeting Amber, a Mickey’s employee, when he gets into town. She’s in high school at that coming-out-of-her-shell age, working lots of hours at the restaurant to help her mother make ends meet. The rest of the story follows, at various points, Amber, the VP (Greg Kinnear, but I can’t remember his fictional name), and the migrant workers who are dropped off at the meat packing plant that supplies all the meat for Mickey’s burgers.
While the information presented was factually interesting, and visually disturbing at times, I had trouble feeling like a coherent story emerged from the separate narratives. The workers, portrayed primarily by Fez from the 70s show, his wife, and her sister, go to the factory, are disgusted by the job, but amazed by the pay, and each follow a separate path toward destruction. The guy gets hurt and subsequently fired, the wife can’t take it and quits to go to a low-pay hotel maid job but eventually has to come back and beg for a job when her husband is fired, and the sister gets involved with the supervisor at the plant and gets hooked on speed. All the while, Amber is learning about what it means to be a corporate cog, like her mother (Patricia Arquette) while her coworkers plan a robbery that never goes down, and her uncle (Ethan Hawke) tries valiantly to get her to follow her dreams. She meets college students who are activists, and they plan a way to try and get back at the meat packing plants for their brutal practices. Greg Kinnear, however, is also having an eye-opening week, talking with ranchers, factory workers, and Mickey’s employees about the rumored horrors at the plant. Suddenly, his burgers aren’t tasting so sweet anymore. In the end, we see a new crop of future workers making that dusty trek across the desert to replace the ones we’ve seen get used up by the system, completing the ugly circle.
It was enjoyable to watch (especially Amber’s performance), save the prolific amounts of raw meat and dead and dying animals. Totally gross to see them get killed and chopped up, to see people mushing up pieces of bad meat to become your ground beef patties. Like the worker’s wife, upon seeing the kill room, I cried a few tears. And knowing that whatever was shown was likely sanitized a bit for the screen made it all the more uncomfortable. But I never felt the same angry call to action that I felt upon reading the book. I almost felt I’d rather have watched a documentary than a fictional account that tried to cover so much territory, albeit pretty well. That being said, even my cooked zucchini lunch looked kind of unappetizing after all that carnage!
If you haven’t read the book, then this movie will be interesting to watch without preconceived ideas. Watch it first, then head for the bookstore to back up the story with facts you can pull out at a cocktail party or activist meeting. If you’ve read the book already… well, read it again! =) You can never know too much about the harm the fast food industry in particular but all franchise commerical low-wage industries in general do to our society.