‘Humane’ Is a Promising Start for Another Cronenberg

Estimated read time 5 min read

With two short films and a successful career in photography under her belt, it was only a matter of time before Caitlin Cronenberg — of the great Cronenberg filmmaking family — crashed into the scene with her narrative feature film directorial debut.

Humane, directed by Cronenberg and written by Michael Sparaga, paints a portrait of a dystopian future where the world has suffered a devastating global ecological disaster, forcing everyone to engage in a life-and-death struggle against their own extinction. Nations are forced to meet population reduction goals in order to shrink the human race by 20 percent through voluntary enlistment into a state-funded euthanasia program. Those who enlist are celebrated as heroes, their deaths painted as the ultimate self-sacrifice for the betterment of humanity.

The events of the film take place over the course of a single day, where retired newsman Charles York (Peter Gallagher) and his wife Dawn (Uni Park) invite his children over for a family dinner. The dysfunctional York children are comprised of government-aligned anthropologist Jared (Jay Baruchel), sharp-tongued Rachel (Emily Hampshire) with her young daughter Mia (Sirena Gulamgaus), aspiring actress Ashley (Alanna Bale), and recovering addict Noah (Sebastian Chacon).

Worn down after watching the world’s ecology deteriorate, as well as the threat of the government drafting people to be euthanized hanging over his head, Charles announces to his family that both he and Dawn have chosen to enlist. However, when Dawn gets cold feet and flees the scene, the Department of Citizens Safety (DOCS), led by the uncanny, constantly-smiling Bob (Enrico Colantoni), informs the family that they must leave the York residence with two bodies as per their manifest.

More than the average home invasion thriller, Humane echoes a similar plot that has been seen in other films such as 2015’s Circle, the Mexican thriller Uno Para Morir (Death’s Roulette) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin as the York siblings must decide who will join their father and enlist.

In typical science-fiction fashion, all governmental or institutional bodies are referred to vaguely as the “government,” the “administration” and the “legislation.” There is no explanation about what happens if someone refuses to enlist until the full force and power of DOCS are brought into play, raising the stakes of the film significantly as they force themselves into the York residence. This added pressure dissolves any solidarity that may have remained between the York children, as they are quick to weaponize each other’s lives against one another and things take a violent turn.

The characters who make up the York siblings all fall into their respective roles, for better and for worse. Where Rachel’s continuous snarky commentary is reminiscent of an eighth-grader learning how to swear for the first time is irritating and unnecessary, Jared is almost cartoonishly evil as his initial confidence in the family’s privilege, and his close proximity to the government to protect them from enlistment immediately turns into frenzied desperation. Baruchel shines in his role — the slimy cowardice of Jared is both skin-crawling and hilarious, and he nails every comedic beat, especially as he tries to reassure his siblings that he “is an ally.” Colantoni’s Bob is also a standout, and his constantly smiling, upbeat demeanour is excellent customer service exemplified — if your customer service agent was sent to kill you.

The film’s commentary about class and privilege are over-the-top, and even comical at times. Cronenberg makes sure that her audience understands that enlistment doesn’t live within a political vacuum. As protesters enter their fifth week of demanding transparency from their government as drafting rumours circulate, the York family (and similar upper-class folks) retain their deluded privilege and don’t fear enlistment. It’s mentioned by Charles that the majority of people who enlist are immigrants because of the monetary compensation their families get after their deaths, with the numbers climbing even higher after enlistment is opened up to undocumented immigrants.

For people like the Yorks, enlistment is merely a concept, and telling people to go “enlist yourself” is the new “fuck you.” Their arrogance reflects the ultimate privilege in any modern society — dystopian or not. It’s only when the threat of enlistment hangs over their heads that their biases and prejudices are immediately exposed.

The heavy-handedness of Humane‘s messaging works well within the film’s humorous, satirical contexts, and it’s in the moments of true suspense and socio-political relevance that this humour is at its best. Cronenberg could have put a little bit more trust in her audience to come to these conclusions about the York siblings and their hypocrisy themselves, however.

Humane is a cynical social critique, the relevance of which will only continue to grow during the current environmental crisis we’re facing. The film’s social relevance provides a fascinating conversation-starter that encourages audiences to think about their own privileges and biases. Not without its flaws, Humane serves as a solid directorial debut for Caitlin Cronenberg.

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