With a constituency limited to anyone who eats, "Food, Inc." is a civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry.

With a constituency limited to anyone who eats, “Food, Inc.” is a civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry. Yes, it has a deceptively cheery palette, but helmer Robert Kenner’s doc — which does for the supermarket what “Jaws” did for the beach — marches straight into the dark side of cutthroat agri-business, corporatized meat and the greedy manipulation of both genetics and the law. Doc biz may be in the doldrums, but “Food, Inc.” is so aesthetically polished and politically urgent, theatrical play seems a no-brainer, though it won’t do much for popcorn sales.

Corn is the vegetable-as-villain in “Food, Inc.,” which builds on the work of nutritionists, journalists and activists Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) to show how multinationals have taken over the production of food. As the movie tells us, corn — which today assumes dozens of ubiquitous identities, notably high-fructose corn syrup — is kept at unrealistically low prices by the government, is fed to animals that haven’t evolved to eat it (such as the cow), causes those animals to develop maladies that must be treated with antibiotics (which are passed on to consumers), and has led to the mutation of new strains of the E.coli virus, which sickens tens of thousands each year.

The whole mess is exacerbated by opportunistic politics — tools of Big Agriculture running the very regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect us — and consumers who have become accustomed to eating whatever they want whenever they want, in quantities they don’t need.

Fast food is presented as having turned meat production into a sadistic exercise in animal torture, something that’s been seen in documentaries before, and it isn’t pretty. But “Food, Inc.” delves deeply into the case of Monsanto, which has monopolized the growing of corn by patenting the biology inside it — and has been allowed to litigate against insurgent farmers through court decisions rendered by the likes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a onetime Monsanto lawyer. The whole system, “Food, Inc.” tells us, is fixed.

That the filmmakers dress up all this information in glossy graphics, splashes of color and Mark Adler’s often buoyant (and ironic) score is ingenious, because the artifice of the film’s aesthetic is always subtly emphasizing the artificiality of the food. Schlosser and Pollan are eloquent Virgils guiding the viewer into the third circle of food hell. But then Joel Salatin — a major figure in “Omnivore’s Dilemma” who owns and operates a self-sustaining poultry-and-pig farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley — arrives to throw some natural light onto the proceedings and illuminate just what can be done to salvage agriculture and our digestive systems.

Salatin is an infectiously enthusiastic champion of his own system, and the film needs him, because others in the movie — such as a working-class Los Angeles family that can’t afford fruit but can afford Burger King — keep showing the insanity of the system.

Disturbing as it is, “Food, Inc.” doesn’t present some doomsday scenario. People can make a difference, it says: After all, look what happened to Big Tobacco.

Food, Inc.

Production

A Participant Media presentation, in association with River Road Entertainment. Produced by Robert Kenner, Elise Pearlstein. Executive producers, William Pohlad, Robin Schorr, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann. Co-producers, Eric Schlosser, Richard Pearce, Melissa Robledo. Directed by Robert Kenner.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Richard Pearce; editor, Kim Roberts; music, Mark Adler; sound, Steuart Pearce, Susumu Tokunow. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 9, 2008. Running time: 94 MIN.

Cast

With: Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin.

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