Thursday, March 08, 2007

Linklater, with fries

Director Richard Linklater has grown an amusingly varied and at times bewildering body of work. On one side he's the maker of such small-budget classics as 'Slacker,' 'Dazed and Confused,' 'Before Sunrise' and 'Waking Life' while some of his other credits appear to be that of a director-for-hire: 'Bad News Bears,' 'The School of Rock' and 'The Newton Boys.' At the same time, Linklater made his name by making quality, no frills movies from meager budgets but now he is known as the pushing-the-envelope artist who invented his own style of rotoscoping for 'A Scanner Darkly' and 'Waking Life.'

In the middle of all this is 'Fast Food Nation,' released this week on DVD. Though it did not receive the acclaim of some of his better known films, FFN broke through some significant filmmaking canons on its way to becoming a memorable movie. It is based on the 2001 best-selling book 'Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal,' a non-fiction, heavily-researched history and examination of the industry. Here is where Linklater's novel approach comes in: though it is based on the book, FFN is fiction and while it is designed to educate and inspire viewers against the unseen evils of the food industry, it is far from a documentary.

This may be why FFN flew under the radar upon its release, because it could have been easily confused as just another documentary like 'Super-size Me' or 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' Nope, FFN is a weaving narrative that takes elements of the global fast food machine and shrinks it down to the human level -- mostly confined to a small Colorado town. Before entering Cody, Colo., we meet Don Henderson, a sharp but naive executive at Mickey's, a national fast food chain that competes with McDonald's and Burger King. Mickey's CEO puts Henderson on assignment after a group of college students found alarming amounts of fecal matter in Mickey's hamburger patties.

Henderson sets out for Cody, where Mickey's primary meat supplier is located. It is here where FFN blossoms and we meet a variety of characters who are connected to Mickey's in various ways: a handful of recent illegal immigrants who are employed at the meat plant, teenagers who work at the local Mickey's, a rancher who knows the bullying ways of the plant and college students who think they can fight the plant's evils. Linklater could have taken his movie in a 'Traffic'-like direction of quick cross-cutting between stories, pausing long enough to deliver another message, but instead we spend a surprising amount of time away from the industry -- getting to know the characters during their real life hours.

FFN wisely strays away from characters spouting statistics and relies on imagery and storytelling to show how dangerous life in the meat cutting business can be, and how bleak life is at the very bottom of the totem pole. Since they're illegals, the meat plant workers know they're readily replaceable and brutally brave their horrific jobs (Linklater plays his hand masterfully here, holding his killing floor trump card until it will have the most emotional impact). On the other side are the Mickey's teenage workers, who put no value on their jobs, since the only way to go is up.

Those hoping for the shock of modern documentaries, with a narrator who holds our hand through the horrific truths may be disappointed by the film's surface. Taken as a whole, FFN paints a disturbing picture of a vicious cycle where the various sides cannot see or affect each other. Linklater's boldest stroke speaks volumes about his abilities as a filmmaker: FFN's most lasting image is not inside a restaurant or meat plant, but actually a sedentary cattle range where -- despite being apparently freed by young activists -- the cows glumly stay put, unwilling and uninterested in whatever exists beyond their fences.

'Fast Food Nation' arrives in anamorphic widescreen with a good set of extras. The highlights of the special features have to be the series of slick Webtoons that educate on the horrors of big business meat manufacturing. In the three prong 'The Meatrix,' we follow Leo (a pig) from his small family farm to "the real world" as presented to him by Moobeus, which includes de-beaked chickens and cows who never see a sliver of sunlight. The cartoons are well made and deliver some cold facts in an entertaining but upfront manner (see 'Manufacturing Fast Food Nation' is a 55-minute documentary about the making of the film that should have been around 20 minutes. Most of the running time is taken up by un-narrated behind the scenes footage that rarely rises to anything worthwhile. The meaty bits of the docu include Linklater and friends, explaining the process of their unorthodox adaptation (a producer explains that they literally "threw out" the book after taking the title and general theme). Linklater and screenwriter (and author the book) Eric Schosser provide a commentary, that is typical of the laid-back friendly style that graces other Linklater DVDs. And like Linklater's other commentaries, it is easy to listen to, but rarely provides any dramatic insights.

This review is also published at


PIPER said...

I was ready to write off Linklater after School Of Rock. But then came A Scanner Darkly and FFN. I haven't seen it but plan on it. I think he is capturing some of the most interesting subject matter today.

Adam Ross said...

I can't wait to hear what he has planned next, IMDB doesn't list anything for him past FFN.