In the opening minutes of Eating Animals, as a car drives through miles of unspoiled farmland, plaintive music plants us firmly in the fertile breadbasket of America —land of opportunity, land of natural beauty, land of plenty. Ah, but what a false promise it is.
Look a little deeper, and that pink-hued body of water isn’t a natural spring; it’s a pool of hog urine and fecal runoff that, sure enough, is recycled into the city’s water supply. That cluster of buildings isn’t an industrious family farm with happy hens and pigs that look like Babe; it’s a prison camp for mutated animals so over-pumped with antibiotics they scarcely resemble the forms of their ancestors. As for that slaughterhouse, well — it’s still a slaughterhouse, only now it goes by the Orwellian euphemism “processing center.”
Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 best-seller about factory farming, this activist doc is chockablock with sobering facts and righteous indignation, delivered in part by its narrator, Natalie Portman, and in part by its well-curated interviewees, each of them a microcosm for the countless victims of agribusiness. We meet a poultry farmer of free-range heritage breeds who rhapsodizes about his birds’ intelligence and agonizes over eventually sending them to their deaths; a relic of another time, he can hardly compete with the industrial farms down the road, leading to an existential crisis in his business.
We touch base with a stoic Tyson contractor whose factory farm has only resulted in crippling debt, and who forbids his own children from seeing the horror show inside the “coops,” let alone enter the family business. Then there’s the whistleblower who exposed wrongdoing at the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska, was harassed by government toadies, was relocated to a veritable Timbuktu, and saw his personal life reduced to tatters.
Director Christopher Dillon Quinn intersperses these stories of human shrapnel with animal-advocacy talking heads armed with trailer-ready bromides about our “mercenary” relationship to animal suffering: “We are the goliath, and nature, and all its forms, is David,” and that the realities of factory farming “will shock the conscience of most kind people,” and that, “if the consuming public saw what [the system] really looked like, they would stop eating it.”
This is certainly the objective of Eating Animals — to reduce the number of people doing what the title says. To support its cause, it contains more than its share of the inevitable nauseating, numbing footage shot clandestinely from Big Ag’s fortresses of torture and confinement, from still photos of animals who have been “raped to death,” as one activist bluntly phrases it, to videos of cows with bloated, bleeding, pus-filled udders. The movie is undeniably persuasive. It’s hard to take away a perspective that doesn’t condemn our species for its shame, its guilt, its complicity, its moral repugnance.
But will Eating Animals preach to anyone other than the converted? I have my doubts. Its target audience is ostensibly the uninitiated, and it’s a sizable bloc. Ninety-seven percent of Americans still eat meat. If, by ignorance or denial or moral relativism or because it just tastes good, they haven’t been transformed enough by the New York Times investigations, the Mother Jones exposés, the Morrissey concerts or superior films like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation, Eating Animals will hardly move the needle.
Skeptical carnivores are unlikely to respond to Portman’s strident, essayistic narration, which belongs in another movie. If he really wanted to open the minds of meat and dairy’s most prized consumers, Quinn would have been wise to set that commentary aside, and just let his wounded subjects do the talking, instead of a member of the Hollywood elite.
Movies like this try to end on an upbeat note. Positive music swells. Solutions are proffered. Unfortunately, the horror show of the previous 80 minutes is far more permanent and convincing than the Pollyannaish statements from the CEOs of Beyond Meat and Just, producers of plant-based proteins who liken their products to electricity in a world of gasoline lamps.
These earnest entrepreneurs produce excellent meat substitutes, but the price needs to go way down to reach the pocketbooks of Joe Q. Public, and not just the enlightened Whole Foods shopper. Until then, we’re going to continue lighting our gasoline lamps, blocking out the screams in the distance.
EATING ANIMALS. Director: Christopher Dillon Quinn; Distributor: Sundance Selects; Opens: Friday at Bill Cosford Cinema at University of Miami, Coral Gables; and July 27 at Lake Worth Playhouse