Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is, in some ways, a mess, but a semi-glorious one at that, as it skewers obvious (though warranted) targets and a few others we don’t expect. It’s the sort of film that begins as an awakening for one character, only to become a detour into hell for another. It’s an ensemble without any one perspective carrying weight, except of course the steady theme that we’re all lost in a sea of grease from which there is no salvation. There is speechifying galore, but curiously little moral sanctimony; and the moment we recoil in horror at the exploitation, greed, and careless disregard for public health, we pause with a tinge of regret, as the very edifice that houses apathetic teenagers, long hours, and dirty food, also employs those who would otherwise be left wanting. It’s a twisted game of idealism and stone cold truth; a world where we cringe at the butchery of the slaughterhouse at the same time we salivate at the end product. In many ways, then, the fast food of this very nation — the raw sewage that runs its course from the bowels of the stockyard to the germ-ridden counter — is more than a root cause of obesity, heart disease, and all forms of cancer, it is the essential dilemma of our very lives. We want it cheap, fast, and loaded with chemicals, and the worse it is for us, the more we want. If a civilization is to be interpreted by its architecture, ours is the neon glow of swill; our house of worship the sixty-second feed bag.

Eric Schlosser’s muckraking masterpiece will never be topped by its fictionalized equivalent, no matter who is behind the camera, and surely Linklater is not the ideal choice to remain faithful to the original source. Linklater is all about lazy, rambling rhythms, and he upholds that tradition once again. Characters come and go, storylines are followed only to be abandoned, and emotions are picked up and dropped as quickly as they are imagined. Things just sort of happen to these folks: a marketing guru for the Mickey’s chain (Greg Kinnear) is appalled by the appearance of fecal matter in his meat, and a trip to Colorado’s slaughterhouses initially proves futile, until he meets with a conscience-stricken rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who undresses him with hard facts. The marketer, Don, seems ready to blow the whistle, but a casual lunch with Harry (Bruce Willis) pushes him on a different course. Harry knows we eat shit from time to time, and what’s more, doesn’t really mind. And hell, he admires the illegal Mexicans to no end for knowing the score, so what’s your problem, anyway? You make this stink, brother, and plants will start closing, hard workers will lose their jobs, and this crap will just be made somewhere else, with even less regulation than you’re getting here. Just drink your beer and keep quiet.

And what of these immigrants? They pay thousands of dollars to get here, face intimidation all along the way (the coyote — played with that unique brand of slime possessed by Luis Guzman — carries a gun and isn’t afraid to use it), get dropped off at a fleabag motel (a dozen per room if they’re lucky), and only then does the humiliation begin. Maybe you’ll work as a housekeeper in some trashy motel, or maybe you’ll work the line at the slaughterhouse, a job made even more degrading by the shift supervisor (Bobby Cannavale) who insists on getting you high and fucking you during breaks, that is if you want to stay gainfully employed. And if you’re married, like Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), you can get a prime position on the kill floor, because you’re proving that nothing is sacred, save the money to live. But work you must, because your husband broke some ribs in a fall at the plant. But his medical bills are his own, as he’s tested positive for drugs, and the company isn’t about to cover for a man who, legally speaking, doesn’t even exist. He’s better off than the man who lost his leg, however, though it’s unfortunate that Linklater didn’t follow through on what happens to these poor saps who are permanently scarred by preventable accidents. As Schlosser’s book pointed out, because these men were given only token compensation for limbs and still expected to work, they were “offered” other tasks like folding towels or hosing down the waste. To speak of alternatives in this underground economy is laughable on its face, but politicians and the comfortable classes speak free market clichés that, above all, substitute for a conscience they were never granted in the first place. Maybe if the smell reached the board room from time to time.

Linklater wisely goes beyond the crisis of conscience for the white, affluent marketing executive, granting a voice to those who labor in the inferno of the plant, and also the teenagers who ask for our orders with a thinly veiled contempt. It is true that customer service at all levels has never been worse in this country, but in the fast food industry, it’s the stuff of legends, with the delivery of heart-stopping food only the last in a chain of indignity. And yet, I’ve never been overly upset with the maddening routine of a burger joint, as I firmly believe that one should only work as hard as their paycheck allows. Sure, I’d like my cheeseburger to avoid the floor if possible, and my milkshake to stay away from the sneezing retard hired to sweep the floors as a tax write-off, but if something’s cold, or rotten, or overly salty, I’ll pause only long enough to remember that for ninety-nine cents, you’re lucky to get something whose preparation doesn’t require tongs and a pair of asbestos gloves. It seems pretty reasonable that if employees do not work for tips, you should expect no more than a pleasing laxative at best. And the kids of Fast Food Nation are as they should be: bored into stupefied silence, they pass their time waiting to die in the buckets of slop they get for a discount, or at the end of a burglar’s gun. And as Schlosser pointed out — reinforced by Linklater — such robberies are so frequent as to be routine, with nearly every case an inside job.

The unexpected pleasure of the piece was in following one of these teenagers, Amber (Ashley Johnson), as she started to question working for these merchants of death. She’s encouraged by her lay-about uncle (Ethan Hawke), and joins an environmental youth group, which is little more than self-righteous, testosterone-driven fury channeled into the hopes that a hottie will join up and chug cock between poetry readings. The group talks about injustice and stuff, and whenever the Che-like posturing gets too thick, someone will suggest action, which in this case is Amber’s belief that cattle fences should be cut. A few of the kids (including Avril Lavigne!) do just that, but rather than the cows stampeding away while “Born Free” is heard in distant fields, the dumb cattle just stand there and await their fate. It’s sublimely hilarious, as the ideals of youth are met with the immovable weight of the brainless beast. As the kids frantically try to bring about freedom, man, they are introduced to the timeless rite of passage whereby the romance meets reality’s road. It’s like shedding tears for the homeless dude in the park, only to actually talk to him one day and find out that, you know, he’s kind of a prick after all. It’s why my conscience bleeds only for abstract issues and concerns. I’ll send checks all night long, but if I have to work with these people, I’ll suddenly find my calendar’s packed to the gills. Amber, like her cohorts, may not give up so easily, but next time she’ll be much wiser.

In the end, Linklater signals our cultural bankruptcy, but without the expected melodrama. It’s almost as if he’s merely reporting the facts, then retreating to his bedroom for a nap. We’re fucked, needless to say, but the massive reconstruction necessary to reverse course is beyond any one person’s power. Collectively, the prospects are even more grim, as few people not attending college or removed from the work world’s sting are able to grant this issue the attention it deserves. Kinnear’s mortified Don is pure fantasy, as most of us gleefully cash checks for performing the unsavory, even if it never rises to the level of outright criminality. Few jobs are exercises in moral purity, and every day is a Hobson’s choice between a clear conscience with the resulting unemployment, and a dirty marketplace of conformity, branding, and homogenized slop that passes for entertainment and sustenance. Fast Food Nation doesn’t have any idea what’s to be done about it, but knows that wherever we’re going, it’s not going to end very well. For every Happy Meal there is a legless Mexican, and for every summer job, an evening out that is a little less meaningful. And yes, we’ll take fries with that.