It can't be easy to wrest a work of investigative journalism into narrative form, to take facts, figures and arguments and work them into a structure actors can easily inhabit. That's what Richard Linklater has attempted in his sort-of adaptation of Eric Schlosser's 2001 indictment of the fast-food industry, "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal." The book's subtitle says it all, and Linklater and Schlosser (the two co-wrote the script) strive to pack the horrible truth into one solid, dramatic McNugget that shows how the industrial food complex hurts everyone: consumers, workers and, most of all, cows.
To a degree, "Fast Food Nation" gets the job done, not least because of a harrowing section, late in the film, made up of actual slaughterhouse footage: We see cows being zapped with stun guns before stumbling forward to have their throats cut. Then we watch them slowly die. What happens to their bodies later -- their heads and legs are chopped off; their skin is peeled from their skeletons; their innards are tossed onto conveyor belts where they slop around, headed for who knows where -- is terrible, but not as terrible as the inhumane killing itself.
The slaughterhouse sequence is the peak that everything else in "Fast Food Nation" is hurtling toward. It's the blood-and-guts of the picture, and while I generally blanch at even fictional depictions of animal suffering in movies, I do think Linklater's methods and motives, extreme as they are, are valid here. Linklater is a conscientious director, and even when his movies don't hit the mark, you at least know he's put a great deal of thought into them. His idea here, as I read it, is that if you're going to eat meat, you ought to at least acknowledge where it came from (as well as recognize that there are more humane ways to kill the animals that we do use for food).
That slaughterhouse climax is bluntly effective; I walked out of the movie feeling wobbly and a little faint. The problem is that it makes almost everything that comes before it -- every thread of the meandering, shapeless story of human greed, folly and misfortune that Linklater and Schlosser have laid out for us -- feel like nothing more than overworked fiction, regardless of the facts and realities it's based on.
The interwoven stories in "Fast Food Nation" are told, "Traffic"-style, in a splintered, wandering narrative; in the end, several of the threads are dropped inconclusively -- maybe we're supposed to care so deeply about the characters' plights that we're not supposed to hope for an actual ending or two. Greg Kinnear plays Don Anderson, a marketing exec employed by a fictional fast-food giant called Mickey's. Investigating reports of impurities in the company's burgers ("There's shit in the meat!" is how one of the company higher-ups puts it, with an air of secretive desperation), he travels to the massive Colorado plant where the chain's meat is processed.
Don gets the stock tour of the joint, in which everyone struts around in white coats and everything looks squeaky-clean. But the Mexican immigrants who have been transported to the plant illegally see a very different (and far more dangerous) place. Among those workers are Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, the wonderful actress who starred in "Maria Full of Grace"). Sylvia is too sensitive to deal with the nature of the job assigned to her (which involves chopping chunks of meat into smaller cuts as it travels past her on a conveyor belt), and takes a job as a hotel maid instead. But Raul stays on -- he's in another department, where the work is far more unpleasant, and much more lethal, involving giant machines that can chew up a man's limbs if he's not careful -- because he can make enough money there to save for the couple's future. His salary is $80 per day, a sum that would be unimaginable in his hometown. At another level on this winding chain of commerce is a responsible high-schooler named Amber (Ashley Johnson, in a bright, sharp performance), who works at her local Mickey's to help her less-responsible mom (Patricia Arquette) pay the bills.
"Fast Food Nation" works hard to grind its points into our consciousness, throwing in a laugh or two here and there to keep us on the trail. But the picture, its flashes of humor notwithstanding, comes off as a dreary screed. The movie is designed to stir up controversy. (Linklater and Schlosser have admitted as much.) But can you really stir up controversy with a lesson plan? By the time we've faced up to the horrible working conditions at the plant, to the way one of its sleazy managers (played by Bobby Cannavale, with cartoonish villainy) takes advantage of the pretty young Mexican girls who come to work for him, and to the way big business and average consumers alike don't give a damn about any of this, we're ready for the slaughter ourselves. It's one thing to induce social guilt using dramatic means; it's something else again to induce it with tedium.
The slaughterhouse sequence is, of course, the capper; it's designed to shock and upset people, and it probably will. But it also has the unintentional effect of diminishing, rather than intensifying, everything that comes before it. This sequence exists in a bubble wholly separate from the rest of the movie: We're not watching a dramatization, a bit of writing brought to life by actors; we're watching animals die, and if we're the decent people that Linklater and Schlosser want us to be, that's bound to get to us. The interlocking story lines that make up the other 95 percent of "Fast Food Nation" spell out, in grave, oversize letters, the human cost of cheap fast food, and it's a high one. But in the end, we know that Linklater's actors (if not his characters) get to wipe off the makeup and go home. The cattle are doomed to play themselves, and rightly, they steal the show.