To explain how Fast Food Nation turns on itself, I must give away this much of the plot: Amber joins her friends in sneaking onto Uni-Globe property, where they break down the fence of a cattle pen. By this nonviolent (though not exactly victimless) act, they expect to strike a blow against a terrible corporate polluter, while showing the world that cows are not meant to spend their lives in feedlots. But the cows won't go anywhere. Provided with loads of tasty, fattening chow, and used to confinement since birth, they refuse to run free.
I suppose this means the cows are like the average McDonald's customer. They--we--know perfectly well that burgers are produced amid cruelty, sold through corruption and consumed as filth. In fact, ever since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle a hundred years ago, the hamburger has been turning stomachs; but we don't walk away from it. On the contrary: The burger remains perennially popular, precisely because it is greasy, cheap and common. Hamburgers are the meal of regular guys, like Clark Gable, who pick them up by the bagful and never call them Salisbury steak. Gable understood--and so do we--that if America can lay any true claim to being a classless society, it's because of the hamburger, especially when served by the billions and billions.
So it clogs your arteries, makes you fat, trashes the soil, poisons the water, condemns animals to a nonlife and chews up multitudes of helpless undocumented workers. People want it. This is the uncomfortable lesson built into Fast Food Nation, the lesson that runs counter to the film's message. A cool guy like Uncle Pete can mock the conformity of fast food culture. A figure with the probity of the film's crusty old rancher (Kris Kristofferson) can rail against "the machine that's takin' over this country." But a poor immigrant like Raul will still be thrilled to eat on franchise alley; and the cattle, when shown open range, will still stay in the pen.
So should we give up and do nothing--not even make movies? God forbid. I'm grateful for every Inconvenient Truth that gets out into the world. But I'm also grateful for the sense of contradiction and complexity that Linklater brings to an otherwise hortatory project.
At the very beginning of Fast Food Nation, he puts a twist into his activism by showing you the inside of a Mickey's franchise, where impossibly cheerful people are enjoying their primary-colored food. Everything is bright and convivial and as phony as chicken tenders. The camera, adopting a customer's viewpoint, glides toward a table and then keeps moving forward, toward the surface of a glistening Big One, and then keeps going, into the meat, which dissolves to show another scene: a street in Mexico. Anyone who's been to the movies will recognize the origin of this sequence. It comes straight out of Blue Velvet: the establishing shots of a parodic suburban "normality" followed by the plunge into a hidden, monstrous "underworld."
It's as if Linklater were showing up not only the lie of fast food culture but also the arbitrariness, the delight in cliché and mere cleverness, in David Lynch's famous opening scene. Here's a real dirty underworld for you, Linklater seems to say. And by the same gesture, he admits: It's only a movie.
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Short Take: The absurdly talented Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky, whose debut film was the caper Nine Queens, died earlier this year at age 47. He left behind one other film, which is now going into US release: a crime thriller titled The Aura. If I had another full column, I would tell you all about it. Instead, like the film's epileptic protagonist, I find myself knowing but helpless, able only to say: This is an astonishing, haunting, compelling movie. Do whatever you can to see it.