There’s an elephant in the room in John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, and that elephant is orange, sports a terrible toupee and, oh yeah, starting today, is our President. Sorry to bring the vibes down—we’ve made a conscious effort to keep things skewed more positive, less OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE IN A NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST WHAT THE FUCK today—but bringing up Trump can’t really be avoided when you’re talking about this movie. It may not be intended as a direct takedown on the part of Hancock, Keaton, and screenwriter Robert Siegel, but that’s sure as shit how it comes across.
On the surface, The Founder is an all-American tale about a small-town Midwesterner who goes from being an unsuccessful traveling salesman to the head of a multi-billion dollar fast food chain. How does he do it, you ask? Through good ol’ fashioned American values, like:
PULLING YOURSELF UP BY YOUR BOOTSTRAPS.
In reality, what Hancock* has crafted here is a positively blistering take on the rot at the center of the “American Dream.” The Founder starts off all wholesome and Leave it to Beaver. Ray Kroc (Keaton) travels around the country trying to convince drive-in restaurant owners to buy the milkshake mixtures he’s hawking. No one bites, except this random outfit in Santa Barbara that Kroc’s never heard of, called McDonald’s. Its owners, brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (a ‘stacheless Nick Offerman) have come up with something called the “Speedee System,” which would eventually come to be known as fast food. Impressed, Kroc goes into business with the brothers, setting off to start up franchise locations across the country. A twinkly score and sun-drenched shots of Ray driving down Route 66 underscore how very, well, ’50s it all is. The war is over and anything is possible - if you want to be successful in life, all you have to do is work hard and believe in yourself. It’s Ray’s mantra: Persistence. Never give up. Isn’t that what America’s all about?
But here’s the problem: Ray’s a shark. And he’s going to eat the McDonald brothers alive.
He starts out with small things, things that he could easily brush off if the brothers called him on them. When asked by a loan officer whether he’s the one who came up with the “Speedee System,” he pauses for a split-second before answering in the affirmative. A lie, but a mostly harmless one—he’s trying to impress this guy enough to give him money, after all. The brothers aren’t there, and anyway, they’ll benefit with every new store. Kroc tries to convince the brothers to let Coca-Cola sponsor the menu boards—and it’s unreasonable of them to say no, isn’t it? “Maintaining the integrity of the business” is all well and good in theory, but it is a business, and who can blame Ray for being practical?
But Kroc’s behavior gets worse and worse. He goes behind the brothers’ backs more and more, comes up with ways to cheat them in small ways. Then large ones. He doesn’t see it as cheating, really. They brought him on to grow the business, and that’s what he’s doing, and if they don’t like the way he’s doing it… well, that’s their problem.
With every ounce of success that Ray achieves, his inner nature—visible in fits and starts from the beginning of the movie—starts to come out. He’s narcissistic and easily provoked. He’s defensive—he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) rub elbows with the upper class at the country club, but Ray is keenly aware that he is not one of them. He’s determined to rub his success in the faces of everyone who’s looked down on him. (Sound familiar?) He’s willing to do anything to anybody for financial gain; on top of stealing McDonald’s out from under its true creators, he unceremoniously ditches his wife when he finds another (married) woman (Linda Cardellini) whose cutthroat attitude more closely meshes with his own.
And more than anything else: He’s a phony. A faker. And delusional—he’s empty, and he doesn’t even realize it. He spouts off corporate speak—“grab the brass ring,” “the ladder to success,” “there’s gold to be had at the end of one of those golden arches”, “McDonald’s can be the new American church. Feeding bodies and feeding souls.”—but all his success comes from taking credit for things other people have done. Like Trump getting a million dollar loan from his father and then claiming to be a self-made man, Kroc never actually creates anything. He is, accuses Dick, just a leech. Dick and Mac are the true innovators, the true exemplifiers of ingenuity and toil. They grew up in the Depression and struck out West to make their own fortune, for fuck’s sake. How much more American can you get? And they lose. Because Ray lives by the philosophy that “business is war. If my competition was drowning, I’d walk up to him and I’d put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?”
And that’s the way it is in America. You get ahead by stepping on the little guy and fucking people over.
Keaton’s performance is so good, Kroc’s transition from good ol’ boy to sociopath so natural and gradual (paired with a gradual darkening of the movie itself, and Carter Burwell’s score taking on a more and more ominous quality), that The Founder is genuinely jarring to watch. It’s a great movie—one of the greatest of the year, I’d say (it’s technically a 2016 movie, having been given a very limited release in California last month)—but it’s not a particularly feel-good endeavor, especially given the timing of its release. Still, if you can muster up the mental fortitude, The Founder’s worth a watch if only for the final shot of Kroc, if nothing else. It’s Keaton’s crowning achievement (definitely in the film, maybe in his career, come at me).
Kroc stands before a mirror, preparing for a banquet at which Ronald Reagan, “another Illinois boy done good,” will be in attendance. He has everything he wanted: money, fame, respect for having “founded” one of the world’s most popular food chains. But for a split second, as he finishes practicing his (plagiarized) speech, a look come over his face. His eyes dart from side to side. He appears uncertain. Keaton doesn’t even say anything, but you know. This is Ray Kroc—liar, cheat, con-man—finally realizing: “Wait… am I a terrible person?”
And then he turns around, leaves the room, and goes about business as usual, moment of self-awareness behind him. Before the closing credits roll, we get a “where are they now” run-down of just how successful McDonald’s, founded on the great American ideal of ruthless capitalism, eventually became.
God bless America.
*YES THE THE BLIND SIDE GUY.