Milkshakes, Hamburgers and Betrayals: Mixed Messaging in ‘The Founder’

Portraying the good, bad, and ugly in McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

I remember the first time I saw the trailer for John Lee Hancock’s The Founder. For a moment I thought it was the same thing as Gold (oops), and then I realized it was a biopic focused on the man who created the McDonald’s fast food chain, Ray Kroc. I was immediately intrigued, since I eat McDonald’s all the time but knew nothing about how it came to be the huge empire that it is today.

I finally got to see The Founder last week, and was surprised by how much of an American hero Ray Kroc isn’t. The film tells his story: an unsuccessful milkshake salesman (Michael Keaton) saw an incredible opportunity in the McDonald brothers’ (Nick Offerman and John Caroll Lynch) speedy and efficient hamburger stand. He then proceeded to screw them over and take over their business entirely. Ray Kroc did not create McDonalds – Dick and Mac McDonald came up with the idea for a restaurant that serves hamburgers and French fries, prepared at a quick pace and served in paper bags. Kroc fell in love with their business model and decided he was going to build McDonald’s restaurants all across America, with or without the brothers’ permission (spoiler alert: it was without).

The most striking thing about Hancock’s film is how the protagonist is not likable, but not totally unlikable either. In Hollywood films, the protagonist is typically a “good” person – at the very least, well-intentioned. What makes films interesting is when they explore the fact that people are complex, and not all good or all bad. Ray Kroc is not evil, but he is also not a very good guy. In interviews, Hancock has stated that there are things he admires about Ray Kroc, and things he does not admire about him, and his film perfectly reflects this statement.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz notes that “The Founder is mesmerized by its hero…but horrified by how he built his empire,” and that this ambivalence is “a hallmark of good drama.” It is much more fun to focus on a jerk who gets things done rather than the people who suffer because of his actions, and that despite his deplorable behavior, the film hangs on his every word – largely thanks to Keaton’s meticulous performance. Kroc did some shady things, and made a lot of people feel hurt and angry, but the film never forgets that in the end, he achieved some amazing things. He is selfish and greedy, but also smart and persistent, ultimately just trying to live the best life he can – even if that means screwing everyone over along the way.

In the beginning of the film, Kroc is shown in various drive-in restaurants, doing his best to sell his milkshake machines and consistently failing. At this point he seems like a Willy Loman-esque character, doing his best to make a living and provide for himself and his wife, and it is easy to feel sorry for him. Even when he lies to his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), about how well business is going, he only does so out of pride, and his wife is sympathetic, pretending she believes him. She knows he is not a bad man, even if he frustrates her.

His first meeting with the McDonald brothers goes well. They explain their business to him and recount the story of how their restaurant came to be. Kroc just seems like an admirer until he keeps showing up in the brothers’ office and starts talking about franchising – opening McDonald’s locations all across America. What is particularly interesting is that Kroc does not change very much over the course of the film. Even though his business decisions become more ruthless as the story progresses, he remains the same person. His motives are consistent – he wants to make money, and lots of it, and he wants to leave a legacy so he will be remembered after he is gone.

His relationships with other people reflect his selfishness. He expects Ethel to enthusiastically support him and all his business ventures, but pays no attention to what she wants. He even goes so far as to mortgage their house without telling her, and later on in the film, casually asks her for a divorce at the dinner table. His actions are all based on what will benefit him, and what will bring him money or glory. He immediately takes a liking to Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of his business partner Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). The fact that they were both married to other people at the time did not stop him from pursuing her, and she eventually became his second wife. Of course, the most prominent reflection of his single-mindedness is in his relationship with the McDonald brothers. They are initially friendly with him, then hesitant about his desire to be part of their business, and then furious when they realize that he intends to take over everything and leave them out of McDonald’s altogether. Kroc ruins their friendship and professional relationship without a second though, only ever seeming troubled by the McDonald brothers when their actions could possibly get in his way.

Keaton creates the perfect balance of selfishness and ruthlessness while also remaining interesting and captivating. The way Kroc goes about building the McDonald’s empire is despicable, yet it is satisfying to see him succeed. Critics have noted that the filmmakers worked hard to keep Hollywood sentiment out of the film, and this is largely what makes it so engaging. I previously noted that Ray Kroc remains a consistent character, but this does not mean that his actions are predictable. The story does not follow the typical Hollywood formula, and its happy ending leaves a bitter taste behind. Kroc is rich and celebrated, with a beautiful wife, but the people he hurt and betrayed along the way cannot be forgotten. As with most biopics, it ends with footage and photos of the real-life people represented in the film, including the McDonald brothers, who have not received any money from the franchise since Kroc took over (the onscreen text notes they are owed millions of dollars).

The Founder received mixed reviews, and has largely been left out of awards season conversations this year, despite starring Academy favorite Michael Keaton. Perhaps it was released too late, and of course, it’s not really a huge loss for a biopic about a rich white man to be left out of the awards race. However, I don’t think this film should be forgotten – it represents a unique type of biopic where the protagonist is ambiguous and complex. It is important for filmmakers to address the fact that sometimes historical figures betrayed and hurt others in order to achieve money and success. The Founder is not a perfect film, but it is absolutely worth watching for Keaton’s incredible character study.