Timed for both Thanksgiving and the centennial of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's classic muckraker, Fast Food Nation opens with a slow zoom into the fresh-charred heart of a greasy, gristle-flecked beef patty. The thing looks disgusting long before it's established that any burger is the ground residue of many messily butchered animals (and their hormones and the contents of their intestines), given a dollop of extra fat, injected with chemical perfume, and possibly dipped in floor dirt or garnished with an employee's loogie.
So much for the micro: Linklater is actually after bigger game. He uses the scarcely fictionalized Mickey's franchise ("Home of the Big One") as a metaphor for American life. A cheerful Mickey's marketer (Greg Kinnear) learns that for all the engineered slogans, scientific packaging, and artificial aromas, lab tests show that "there's shit in the meat." His investigatory mission to the mega-packing plant in Colorado intersects with the stories of the illegal Mexican immigrants who work there, as well as that of a Mickey's register girl (former child actress Ashley Johnson) turned eco-activist.
Fast Food Nation is exotic for being a movie about work. Its characters struggle with some of the world's dirtiest jobs -- morally as well as physically. In this, Linklater is following in the Sinclair tradition: The Jungle, which also focused on immigrant workers, was less an attack on the meat-packing industry than a socialist screed against capitalism itself.
A valiant effort overflowing with good intentions, Fast Food Nation is graphic enough to put you off beef even before it reaches the plant "killing floor." But the film is curiously anemic. Its most galvanizing scene effectively undermines the argument: Bruce Willis has a lip-smacking cameo as the voice of cynical realism -- a Mickey's operative who mocks American 'fraidy-cats and shocks Kinnear with the smirking assertion that "we all have to eat a little shit from time to time."
The next morning Kinnear leaves his hotel, disillusioned with the plastic people of the service industry -- and pointedly vanishes from the movie. The other featured stars are predictably liberal. Kris Kristofferson has a scene as a righteous cattle rancher threatened by unscrupulous developers. The movie stops dead so that he can give Kinnear a little history of the meat industry's price-fixing and political influence. He laughs at the idea of a clean burger and offers what amounts to the movie's political worldview: "The machine has taken over this country . . . like something out of science fiction."
The slaughterhouse is rife with exploitation and danger. This is where Linklater finds his melodrama, following the fate of three Mexican illegals. The most painfully naive is played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, the open-faced Colombian actress whose role in Maria Full of Grace earned her an Oscar nomination; her character here deserves the same. The despoliation of Moreno's grave, clear-eyed child of nature is the movie's emotional crux. Her season in hell is the real thing -- pulling kidneys on the killing floor amid torrents of blood, her compassionate gaze clouded with ammonia tears.