With a title like “Eating Animals,” unless you’re familiar with author Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book and the personal journey it lays out, you may assume Christopher Quinn’s documentary adaptation will be primed to harangue carnivores, fortify vegans and generally make us all feel bad about meat and what its consumption is doing to the planet.
That guess wouldn’t be entirely wrong, although to be a meat-eater doesn’t mean not caring about the treatment of animals — Foer himself is a flexitarian — and it should be on everyone’s mind how detrimental industrialized animal-processing is to the environment. But Quinn, Foer and executive producer Natalie Portman, who narrates, aren’t out to harsh your summer barbecue buzz (well, not totally), even as they vividly take aim at factory animal farming’s well-documented evils.
The movie has a more sublime melancholy in mind, in that it openly rues a way of life lost when those who once earned a solid living working the earth traditionally, growing crops as well as humanely raising livestock, ultimately became useless to a corporatized supply chain focused on efficiency, abundance and bottom lines. With health and climate concerns deepening as a direct consequence, the question becomes, at what cost is our meal of cheap, convenient meat?
As for the humans caught up in this maelstrom, the filmmakers would rather show complex, emotional figures — like heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese, who’d rather save his colorful birds than have to sell them, and whistleblower Jim Keen, who called out the USDA on animal cruelty in its research labs and saw his life collapse — than name obvious villains. (Even its brief interlude to tell the story of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Sanders, whose original recipe turned into original sin for mechanized poultry farming, the filmmakers acknowledge that Sanders once had a passion for quality that got lost as business boomed.)
Big Agriculture knows how shaky the relationship between eater and food gets when technological might and business acumen turns into mass animal mistreatment. The minimum of effort to learn the inner workings of these animal factories — just driving by, for instance — is met with surveillance and security questions.
Especially highlighted is the plight of chicken farmer Craig Watts (who you may have seen on John Oliver’s HBO show when it exposed draconian poultry contracts). His agreement with Perdue Farms not only created a never-ending debt hole but also prevented the kind-eyed (if, by this movie’s filming, stricken-looking) Watts from making changes to improve the health and care of his animals. To feed the beast of factory farming, “Eating Animals” makes abundantly clear, even humans who do the heavy lifting of animal raising are treated like an exploitable, expendable commodity. The McNugget may be a ubiquitous American symbol of food economy, but the industry that created it, the movie argues, is practically Soviet in its centralized, controlling design.
And yet because “Eating Animals” envisions a kinder future, in which more responsible eating brings about more traditional farming, Quinn leans into his visual juxtapositions. Yes, you will see plenty of drug-injected creatures engineered to suffer for more marketable (read: plumper) flesh, and shots of disturbingly pink lagoons of waste near hog processing plants that one activist calls a “fecal marinade.” But you’ll also see lots of Reese’s inspiringly gorgeous, flapping and fluttering turkeys, and at a Niman Ranch farm, charming footage of puttering, slop-happy pigs. The message is clear, and memorably rendered: Care about where your meat comes from, because then you might eat less of it, feel better when you do eat it, and cause a little less suffering in the world.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts June 22, The Landmark, West L.A.