by Deryn O’Sullivan
From milkshake mixers to golden arches, and sea to shining sea: John Lee Hancock’s latest ensemble The Founder is the mesmerising tale of the rise and rise of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Hell-bent on personal glory at all costs, Kroc dreams up ambitious plans of expansion for a successful, smart, but small-time burger restaurant; over time, we see that dream pursued, stolen, replicated, and reformed into something familiar, yet disfigured; an enshadowed American Dream. When Kroc died in 1984 at the age of 82, his personal fortune was estimated at $500 million. Big Mac, anyone?
The Founder; Dir: John Lee Hancock | Writer: Robert D. Siegel | Starring: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman | USA 2016, 155 minutes | Our Rating: ★★★★☆
Early on in The Founder, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a fast-talking but frustrated salesman, sells eight milkshake machines to the McDonald’s brothers, Dick and Mac (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch in typically fantastic form); intrigued by the unusually large purchase, Ray travels overnight across America to San Bernadino, California, to find out more. Once there, impressed by the brothers’ idiosyncratic approach to quality, speed, and efficiency in the kitchen – and the long, flowing line of happy customers, no doubt – Ray senses the potential for much greater gain; soon after, he would pitch Dick and Mac with the idea of franchising the restaurant, locally and across State lines. Despite the brothers’ initial resistance – previous attempts at franchising the restuarant locally had failed – Kroc just doesn’t take no for an answer; what you might call pestering, Kroc would call persistence.
Striking a deal with the pair, Kroc places himself in a position to lead franchising across the state and beyond – a crucial move that, by design, ultimately leads to two things; one: the brothers’ increased frustration at Ray’s aggressive, single-minded plans for the rapid expansion of the business, and two: Ray’s transformation from frustrated travelling salesman to “the founder”, as he would later refer to himself – despite all evidence to the contrary and in conscious ignorance of the truth. Keaton, an all-time great, has made a career of bringing a skewed sense of humanity to amoral, unlikable people like Ray, and seen here, is no different.
A force of nature acting beyond his purview, Ray’s deeds seem to evolve out of a specific mix of frustration and entitlement; his rapid, prodigious successes come at a high personal cost to almost everyone around him, especially his long-suffering wife, a sadly underutilised Laura Dern. He’s not creative, per se, with anything but the truth; combined with a shark-like sense for blood in the water, it’s hard not to feel complicit in the heist, which we do, whilst simultaneously admiring his destination-orientated work ethic.
Driven by a propulsive script from writer Robert Siegel, The Founder is both an interesting character piece and a disarming, relatable metaphor for the highs and lows of modern capitalism, and our relationship to it; Ray’s dedication to his own personal gain is unfathomably wrong, and yet, perversely admirable – the conflictual American Dream. Tracking shots, quick cuts, and dialogue in The Founder seem placed to indicate a thematic parallel with another American institution corrupted by growth and time – the church. The sense of cognitive dissonance between what we want something to be, what it represents to us, and what it actually is, pervades throughout The Founder.
As the film draws to a close, you’re left to reflect upon the realisation that what it really took to kick-start a global fast-food juggernaut wasn’t good fortune, but overarching ambition, a deep sense of entitlement, amorality, and the gall to match all three. We suffer a subtle sense of despair in the final moments, guilt at how easy a heist this was to pull off. Despair served with a knowing smile, perhaps, at how little it will change our minds when stood at the counter.