American audiences love a white douchebag who is also a genius. Their shittiness is mostly outweighed by their ingenuity. You may be a dipshit that can’t really relate to anyone and dares to put “I’m CEO, Bitch” on your business card, but at least you created Facebook. And you might have daddy issues and an inability to relate to basically anyone, while also backstabbing your closest friend (which seems like a trend), but at least you created he iPod. The Social Network and Steve Jobs, amongst several films of their ilk, are excellent and okay films, and while their desire is to deconstruct the myth of said white male asshole genius, they can’t help but be at least marginally complicit in valorizing them. (That they’re both written by Aaron Sorkin might have something to do with it.) The Founder, directed by John Lee Hancock and written by The Wrestler scribe Robert D. Siegel, looks like these films from the trailer, even from the poster. Michael Keaton, as McDonald’s’ first franchiser Ray Kroc, stands in front of the “golden arches”, they themselves such a piece of iconography, as if trying to steal the spotlight from such a quintessential logo and standin for the American Dream. Above his head in all caps: “Risk Taker. Rule Breaker. Game Changer.” They cleverly forgot one word: Villain.
Ray Kroc’s milkshake machine selling business is running dry, but when he stops to visit a fast food joint in southern California, a bright idea pops into his head: capitalize on a good thing to make yourself rich and everyone else miserable. He listens to the startup story from the brothers McDonald, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), and all the while, you can see Kroc’s gears turning. What the McDonald brothers have created and perfected, from a 30 second wait time to paper wrapping, Kroc wants to make his own, but bigger. He wants to franchise McDonald’s, and the brothers agree.
Keaton’s pose is of the sort where he’s scoping out a field, or a kitchen, trying to evaluate how much work this thing will take and, ultimately, how much money he’ll make from they work. All of a sudden, it’s as if McDonald’s the thing, the property, all that he wants it to represent (family, institutions, God, America, etc.) does not matter in comparison to the idea that he wants to embody all of those ideals. And – dun, dun, dun – at any cost. It’s not wonder why the greasy paint job on the poster has him positioned in a way that the middle of the fry oil colored M gives Kroc devil horns.
This is to say that Hancock and Siegel are not only fine playing Kroc not as “cool genius but also asshole” but as “not only asshole, but possibly everything wrong with capitalism”. They don’t bother to humanize him, at least to the point where it would let the man who, by these accounts, stole and bought out McDonald’s from its original founders, off the hook. He’s almost not worth any empathy, the tricks he pulls – turning the franchising into a game of real estate ownership, creating business hieracrchies, keeping the brothers in the dark. And consistently, at moments where other writers and directors would be inclined to find twee goodness or something worthy of admiration in a man who might be fundamentally bad news, it plays scenes either with a distance (his failing marriage), or as a way to make him seem even more out of touch and selfish (every dinner date with his then wife, played by Laura Dern, is an excuse for business talk). He’s always thinking about the next thing to make him big, to make the thing he’s ostensibly nurturing into what people see when they think of America.
It’s not exactly subtle filmmaking, but such bluntness works in its favor partially because there’s an ironic touch from Hancock. The go-getter attitude of Keaton’s Kroc – he leans forward, looking both as if he’s listening intently and also not there at all – is sort of made jarring with Keaton’s vocal affect: like torn up pavement that still wants a ride. All of his good ideas are laced with the unnerving quality of his voice. Shot in golden light in every single scene, his arched smile and croak-like voice makes him sound like the Devil, probably.
Or rather, as he continues to betray and connive and serve his own best interests, up on the podium trying to get others to buy into his grand plans, up on the pulpit, Ray Kroc is this: a false prophet.