Fast Food Nation Review

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation began life as a two-part article written for Rolling Stone magazine, before being expanded into a book. Schlosser’s investigations into the workings of McDonalds – and by extension the whole fast-food in industry and late capitalism in general – clearly struck a nerve, not least demonstrated by the rapid image-cleansing that followed from the industry it targets. However, a book-length work of investigative journalism would not be the most obvious book to be adapted into a feature film. A documentary maybe, but maybe that had been done already, by Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me.

Schlosser and Richard Linklater take a different tack. They adapt the book as a fictional drama, borrowing the multiplot structure of other films dealing with large issues involving different countries, Traffic and Syriana being notable recent examples. The burger chain is called “Mickey’s”, and there are a couple of references to McDonalds and Burger King just to distinguish Mickey’s from them. This no doubt keeps the lawyers happy, but given that the book named names (backed up by intensive research) this does draw the film’s teeth somewhat. British producer Jeremy Thomas (who had been given the book by Malcolm McLaren, who also has a producer credit) raised financing outside the USA, as it was clear that no major studio would touch material like this.

Linklater and Schlosser use three interlocking storylines. Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) is a Mickey’s marketing executive sent to investigate reposts of “faecal matter” in the company’s burgers. His journey takes him to the meat-packing plant in Cody, Colorado, which is staffed mainly by illegal Mexican immigrants, among them Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, from Maria Full of Grace), her sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon) and her boyfriend Raul (Wilmer Valderrama). Meanwhile, Amber (Ashley Johnson) is in high school and working behind the till at Mickey’s. Encouraged by her uncle (Ethan Hawke) to do better for herself, she leaves her job and during the course of the film gradually becomes politicised.

Along the way we meet cattle supplier Harry (Bruce Willis) who shrugs off health concerns – if there are bugs in the meet, so what? Cooking will kill them. Rudy (Kris Kristofferson) is an old rancher who laments the way things have changed, and not for the better.

Richard Linklater is a director who makes small, personal projects like this and A Scanner Darkly (which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Festival along with Fast Food Nation) in between studio projects such as The School of Rock and The Bad News Bears. His good intentions are not in doubt, but his sensibility seems at odds with the subject matter of this film. He’s a humanist director who above all likes to hear his characters talk – this works perfectly in Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and the duo of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. But in Fast Food Nation that approach seems rather too laid-back for its own good. Schlosser’s book was written in a tone of controlled anger – Linklater’s film seems mildly concerned. Structural problems don’t help either: Don disappears from the film halfway through, and some hinted-at subplots come to nothing. However, the film does still hold your interest. Willis and Kristofferson do some of their best work for years in their single-scene cameos. In fact, most of the cast are very good, and even Avril Lavigne doesn’t seem out of place. Linklater’s direction and his longtime DP Lee Daniel’s camerawork serve the material without drawing undue attention to themselves. Squeamish viewers should beware a late scene which shows cattle being slaughtered.

Tartan’s edition of Fast Food Nation is presented on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

The film is presented on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced, with slight windowboxing at the sides. Fast Food Nation was shot in Super 16mm, giving the film a less slick, more contrasty look - and soften and grainier - than might have been the case with 35mm stock. Tartan’s DVD transfer is faithful to that look. The skin tones of the white characters a little on the pale side, but I don’t doubt that this is intended.

As so often, Tartan give us three soundtrack options: 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS, plus an analogue 2.0 (Dolby Surround) option. DTS has the slight edge in clarity but there’s nothing very much in it. This isn’t a particularly adventurous soundtrack to begin with, pretty much front and centre throughout. The dialogue is a mix of English and Spanish: subtitles are provided for the Spanish dialogue, but for nothing else on the DVD – a frequent lapse for distributors like Tartan, who specialise in foreign-language material, when it comes to releasing English-language films like this.

Two lengthy interviews are provided. John Millar talks to Richard Linklater (14:44) and Eric Schlosser (21:18). Linklater talks more about the making of the film and the work of his actors. Schlosser goes back to the origins of the project and the Rolling Stone commission. Soon after the book was published, Schlosser received offers for film rights – one pitch was for a musical featuring singing hamburgers – before selling the rights to Jeremy Thomas who brought Linklater on board. Also included is the original trailer (1:22).

Although it’s not as effective as agitprop as I would have liked, something that you should go to Super Size Me for, Fast Food Nation does work as drama more often than it doesn’t. It’s certainly part of a debate that is well worth having, and it gets a decent DVD release from Tartan.

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