19 November 2006 | Quinoa1984
a kind of head on collision of message and character, with the former winning over the latter
There's a tendency in films of this nature, of the Fast Food Nation kind, where you already know going into it what the message is. It's not quite exactly as immediately black and white as it might seem (at first), but then after a while it becomes much more clear. While filmmaker Richard Linklater doesn't make very simple statements like 'fast food will make you fat', he does try to push the message that the sort of machinery of corporation is similar to that of the assembly line, is what is crippling to those entwined in the circle of cheap product made from dead meat. Which is fine; I'm not one of those that think precisely along the lines of Bertolucci, who was quoted as saying that he leaves messages for the post office and not for film. However, I do expect that if a filmmaker wants to put forward the message- and boy does Fast Food Nation do that more than anything- to make the characters &/or story lines interesting in the dramatic framework. He achieves this, but only up to a point. Narrative focus and dramatic drive only come through much more effectively within the last 45 minutes, while the first half seems startlingly dull, or at the least meandering.
That being said, I did find elements here and there throughout the weaker section of the film interesting. There's even a spellbinding aerial shot of the seemingly unending field of cattle, waiting for the slaughter. But for the most part early on we're treated to the sort of set-up of the main story lines: a group of Mexican illegals (one of them, Sylvia, played well by Catalina Moreno) get picked up by a guy in a van, and taken to a 'Mart' in town, and go to find work. Most of the illegals find it at a meat-packing/grinding/whatever plant, where what is seen by a quasi executive type, Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), is not seeing everything he thinks he is when shown around the plant. He meets with a couple of people, one environmentally conscious and protective of his land from corporations (Kris Kristofferson), and another who is cynical and not too optimistic (Bruce Willis, who has one of the best scenes in the film albeit with a speech attached). Meanwhile, as he goes into a Mickey's (ho-ho) to get a 'Big One' burger from Amber (Ashley Johnson), Linklater and co-writer Eric Schlosser also follow her tale of nothingness of the small-town teenage girl.
All of these stories interconnect at times, or are left to themselves. While one is actually intriguing and ultimately very sad, which is the Mexican immigrants tale (that sense of tragic exploitation going on that ends up finding a place in the 'Nation' sense of the word), the other two either spurt to a halt after a while, or just kind of go on aimlessly until the last few scenes. The former of those with Kinnear doesn't give him that much to do aside from listening to people talk, and on the phone talking to his family. In a way he could've had his own film as a character, like with Wally Wiggins in Waking Life, but on its own Linklater leaves him be after the first hour, and then coming to a wrap-around in a predictably dour manner in the end credits. Amber's story, on the other hand, is sort of the opposite- she is just a small-town girl living in a lonely world (as the song goes), and sometimes listening to idiotic plots to rob the Mickey's by his co-workers, while here and there figuring out the future for herself.
What's both fascinating and frustrating about the film though could be seen sort of from Amber's storyline, where you see scenes that are convincing both in characters talking like real people (ala Ethan Hawke's moments), but also having not as much to do with the real 'message' going across that one might think- that is until Amber joins up with the young Animal-rights/ecological brigade and goes to cut a fence down to let the cows out. This actually had a real pathos to it, and was even entertaining (probably against Linklater's own intentions). But it's not just the writing or how Linklater connects the stories together. Acting wise it's hit or miss- Moreno is fantastic in a role that ends her up seeing the actual slaughtering of cows (which is staggering, whatever you think about serving meat in fast food). But the huge ensemble either gets their little moments well like Willis or Hawke, or either 'phones it in' like Kristofferson or just outright sucks like Lavigne. There's even a convincing one-note turn by the sleazy, pig manager of the assembly line job (I forget his name), but he too only get to have his character do what's required in the script.
As I walked out of the theater I realized that this wasn't at all a bad film, in fact it's a a pretty decent effort at dramatizing in small-town/big-ensemble fashion what it is to have the ugliness of consumer productivity. But that I also found it to be, of the films I've seen of his so far, my least favorite of Linklater's, which goes to show how strong a work he can still deliver when when not working at full throttle. And it's a little ironic considering how much of a success I found A Scanner Darkly to be, possibly coming closest to my favorite of his, and how both films take on a specific message to the audience, but one accomplishes it by basing it around characters and a really tightly-knit storyline and style that is consistently engaging, while the other is content to hop around from malaise to shock to whatever. Grade: B