In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.
Declaring Fast Food Nation Richard Linklater’s “most visceral film” is a bit of an understatement—it immediately lunges, teeth first, for the jugular, and cares so little for subtlety that there’s a smash cut between Greg Kinnear’s fast food chain Marketing VP considering an enormous industrial cattle ranch, and Luis Guzman’s shady coyote shuffling immigrants from a van (going so far as to refer to one of them by number). Considering the horrifyingly disgusting (and disgustingly horrifying—this really can’t be overstated—non-fiction source of its story, approaching the material with any measure of subtlety was probably never an option.
Adapted as a fictional narrative from his own bestselling non-fiction exposé, Eric Schlosser’s screenplay touches on nearly all of his book’s bigger themes of cause-and-effect, while wringing out a great deal of fatalistic humor on the topic. (Kinnear is ideally cast as the corporate go-to guy learning far more than he ever wanted to know about the product he shills for.) On its surface, the project seemed a strange fit for Linklater—a filmmaker synonymous with a narrative-free structure—until it’s discovered that the narrative follows three major threads, each with its own unique political agenda tied into the plot. Besides the thread of Kinnear’s character, there’s that of Mexican immigrants Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) paying for the privilege of smuggling themselves into the United States, only to be pressed into the service of the meatpacker/slaughterhouse giant that supplies tainted beef to Kinnear’s national burger chain employer, Mickey’s. (Subtlety’s already off the table, remember?) And then there’s Amber (a wonderfully earnest Ashley Johnson), who’s just trying to help her mom (Patricia Arquette) pay some bills by balancing success in high school with her part-time, minimum wage job at Mickey’s.
While Schlosser seems to be arguing that resistance is useless, as evidenced by Kinnear’s tense—and ultimately defeatist—conversation with his company’s supply chain boss (an hilarious cameo by Bruce Willis) and the ever-grizzled Kris Kristofferson as a lifelong rancher whose livelihood has been torn apart by policies made to support corporate greed, Linklater is just as keen to turn to his cinematic comfort zone as a rejoinder. Once Ethan Hawke’s uncle character shows up to mentor/monologue Amber and plant the seeds of destabilization to ensure his niece doesn’t waste her youth in blind compliance, Linklater’s fans can heave a mighty, empowered sigh of relief. From there, the director’s familiar oeuvre begins to take shape, and becomes the more intimate, personal film that was clearly waiting in the wings when he signed on to the project.
Echoing the themes of small revolution found in his Dazed and Confused high school tribes, and HBO series pilot, $5.15/Hr., the film hangs its hopes on the nation’s youth (and, for some inexplicable reason, Avril Levigne) to upset the status quo. Of course, Linklater himself being a vegetarian may have had something to do with his involvement, too. Which is, no doubt, why choosing to end the film with one of the exploited immigrants touring the meatpacker’s killing floor as she’s hustled to fill another debasing role within the company, there’s no reprieve for the audience. Linklater’s not scared to wield his lens like a cudgel in showing America the ugliness in its soul, especially when there’s a chance to reach the next generation of thinkers—and maybe turn their disgust into revolt.
21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.