movie poster
Image: © Fox Searchlight

Find out what author Eric Schlosser has to say about the film.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down in the mostly empty theater for the press screening of Fast Food Nation last month. The book is fascinating … but fact-heavy and not character-driven. I knew this movie was a narrative, following the lives of fictional workers producing (and marketing and serving and eating) food at fictional fast-food chain “Mickey’s.” I had seen the trailer featuring Little Miss Sunshine cutie Paul Dano serving a “Big One” from off the prep-room floor and Greg Kinnear getting a whiff of “smoky meat” flavoring. I thought the movie might even be a comedy.

But I left the theater feeling like I had seen a horror film. During many of the meat-packing scenes, the gore-level was on par with something like Saw III. (Or I would assume, anyway — my eyes were closed during the most gruesome scenes. And I’ve never seen Saw III … but both involve large saws.) The scariest part about the film, though, is that — to the best of Eric Schlosser’s and Richard Linklater’s screenwriting abilities — it accurately portrays the fast-food industry.

Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a great movie, and I hope the marketing power behind it — and the big names on the cast list (Dano and Kinnear are joined by Bruce Willis, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and others) — gets people into the theaters. Much like the 2004 gross-umentary Super Size Me, this is something everyone should see before ordering a Big Mac One.

The film’s storyline follows several major plots: Kinnear plays a high-level marketing exec at Mickey’s who is sent to Colorado to find out how the meat is getting contaminated with E. coli. Willis is a thuggish middleman Kinnear meets along the way. Wilmer Valderrama, in a very un-Fez role, makes his way to the Colorado meatpacking plant as an illegal immigrant hoping to pursue the American dream. (His scenes and those with the other Hispanic immigrant workers are in Spanish with English subtitles.) Arquette and Hawke play mother and uncle (uh, respectively) to a high-schooler (Ashley Johnson) who works at Mickey’s after school.

The film explores many angles of America’s convenience-based food industry, but Johnson’s storyline delves deepest into the environmental effects. She joins up with a group of college kids who want to fight the system. They’re angry about how the animals are treated. They’re angry about the feedlot waste getting into a local creek. They’re angry about what the plant is doing to their air quality. They’re just generally angry …

But what can they do about it? Someone in the group suggests a letter-writing campaign (ha!), but instead they end up making plans to destroy a fence on a rancher’s property in hopes of freeing the cattle. They talk about the Patriot Act and how their mission will be labeled an act of “eco-terrorism.” It’s an interesting dialogue, and one that I was surprised (though pleasantly) to hear in a mainstream film. Perhaps it was a bit of a stretch, but maybe it will get people thinking.

In fact, that’s my hope for the film as a whole — that audiences will come out of it chewing over what they’ve seen and amending their eating habits accordingly. It won’t make vegetarians out of all of us, but it should make fast-food meals a lot less appetizing.