The Founder ★★★½

2016 Ranked

A mesmerizing horror film, The Founder is the clearest depiction of modern day America ever put to film. While a clunky work, director John Lee Hancock's depiction of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) swooping in, stealing McDonald's from its rightful owners, passing it off as his own, screwing those brothers over, and then really sticking it to them to squash them entirely, The Founder plays out like a modern day depiction of capitalism. With the little guy getting screwed over in the name of corporate's bottom line, America has been plagued with this rapidly decreasing middle class while the rich only get richer. In this film, Hancock puts this on full display in a terrifying depiction of smart business practices at the expense of human kindness and empathy. Instead, it is win at all costs and allow the losers to bathe in a tub of their own blood.

In an excellent performance, Keaton plays the hard working and hard-nosed shark that was Ray Kroc brilliantly. He is a dreamer who will stop at nothing to have everything he could ever hope to think about. From creating a multi-billion dollar corporation out of merely seeing the name "McDonald's" to leaving his wife after one glance of a new woman who captures his eye, nothing happens quickly for Kroc but it always happens. No matter what he does, he is always thinking twenty steps ahead and is clearly a brilliant businessman. While many of his ideas are handed to him, he builds them up and is able to capitalize on the ideas given to him. Sometimes, in life, it is not originality that reaps rewards. Rather, it is being willing and able to execute an idea, whether it is yours or not. Here, Kroc does exactly that and takes every idea over the goal line with brilliant precision and persistence. Unfortunately, in doing so, he tramples over everybody who gets in his way or he perceives as getting in his way even if they are just innocent bystanders.

It is this negativity that creates the central conflict of The Founder. Ray Kroc may be a brilliant businessman, but he is a horrible husband and person to be in business with. He is cut throat and not afraid to let his eyes wander to new possibilities. Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) realizes this quickly, but sticks with the deal because of the urging of Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). Unfortunately, Kroc is a carnivore. He feeds on fresh meat and seeks to sink his teeth into whatever competition he can find. Turning on everybody in his life throughout the course of the film, The Founder is greatly negative towards its subject and is unafraid to extensively highlight the flaws in his character. No matter how smart he was and how much of a visionary he could be, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Ray Kroc was a mostly bad man who was unnecessarily cruel to everybody who did him wrong in his eyes.

The part that does hold back The Founder, however, is a problem inherent in many biopics. Director John Lee Hancock is simply unable to blend his subject's professional life with his personal life. While showing many of the same traits in his personal life, especially with how he just dumps Ethel (Laura Dern) for a new wife when she offers him more in that moment, the film always seems to come to a halt. Compared to personal indulgences in films such as There Will Be Blood or The Social Network, both cited as influences on the work, The Founder is never able to make it gel. Thematically, they work, but for the film's pacing and plot it always feels like stomping on the breaks in favor of taking an undesirable detour. There is no flow or cohesion as a result of these scenes that just distract from the story of McDonald's being stolen from the brothers. Instead, it turns into too much backstory about Ray Kroc and not enough about the film's true victims. The scenes, especially Dern's Ethel, feel like filler and Hancock just checking off a box from the biopic formula checklist, instead of being a section of the film he is interested in at all. Had he been interested in exploring Ethel and Kroc's personal life, their divorce would have been more important and he would not have just jumped to him having married Joan (Linda Cardellini), who was actually his third wife, not his second. This perilous underwriting and refusal to actually engage its characters in the film's personal life section makes the film feel like a Wikipedia page. With much of the article dedicated to his professional life, the film's personal life section is a brief blurb that reads, "Ray was married to Ethel, but met Joan while franchising McDonald's. He divorced Ethel and married Joan, who later became invaluable as a source of ideas for how to improve the restaurant."

Featuring an excellent performance from Michael Keaton in the central role, The Founder may not be 2016's The Social Network, but it is a terrifying exploration of the death of the middle class and rise to power of individuals with questionable morals. It indulges into Ray Kroc's personal life far too much to be sure, but its unflinching damnation of its central character and lack of fear in showing his negative qualities, makes the film a rarity in the biopic genre. A chilling, entertaining, compelling, and entirely revealing look behind the true story behind McDonald's, John Lee Hancock's The Founder is a very strong work.