In the opening minutes of Fast Food Nation, Richard Linklater grosses us out by zooming deep into the pocked, greasy surface of a typical fast food hamburger. Whether intentionally or not, the film assumes the same aesthetic as that industrialized disc of meat -- it looks grimy and fuzzy, like the budget might have been slashed. Perhaps that explains why Fast Food Nation didn't enjoy a more universally positive reception, because its content -- its meat, if you will -- is solid. Linklater follows in the structural footsteps of Steven Soderbergh, whose Traffic examined the drug war at all levels, from white collar to foot soldier. Linklater's topic is the meat industry, and he shocks us in ways far beyond the physical appearance of a burger. First there's the fast-food executive (Greg Kinnear) who learns that fecal matter is regularly intermingled with the meat; he serves as both the surrogate for the horrified viewer, as well as the stand-in for a documentary filmmaker who might seek to expose such conditions. Worse is when Linklater closes with images of cow slaughter from an abattoir, which would be right at home in such a documentary, because they're 100-percent real.
A loose adaptation of Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation also follows the undocumented workers exploited by the meat companies, as well as a group of teenagers who are planning a half-hearted protest. One might accuse Linklater of being a bit half-hearted with the latter storyline, and truth be told, Kinnear's character disappears from the narrative for long periods as well. It's the illegal immigrants played by Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama, then, who are the film's real emotional center. They function as a case study of the experience of numerous immigrants, with the same nominal highs and depressing lows that comprise the "the American dream" for the prototypical outsider. Fast Food Nation does also give us doses of the Richard Linklater we know and love, most notably when Ethan Hawke shows up to bond with his brainy teenage niece (Ashley Johnson). It's here that Linklater indulges his fondness for a) working with Hawke, and b) using intellectual dialogue to attack the core issues in his films.