Review: ‘Humane’

Caitlin Cronenberg's Darkly Funny But Modest Dystopian Thriller Is A Promising Career Launch

Credit to Caitlin Cronenberg, daughter of David Cronenberg, that with her directorial debut Humane she chose not to directly follow in her father’s footsteps. At least, not by mimicking his early body horror work. But there are certainly some similarities in his most recent efforts which highlight the horrors of societal and political structures. That said, there’s still plenty of blood to be spilled in this self-contained, darkly humorous thriller about a privileged family that must choose which one of them is going to die.

Cronenberg has a really clever premise to work with from screenwriter Michael Sparaga. Humane imagines a future where overpopulation has decimated the planet, leaving few resources. The countries of the world have come together for the “Athens Accords”, which demands each reduce their population by 20%.  Citizens are encouraged to “enlist”, using patriotic war lingo, which is their nice way of asking people to voluntarily be euthanized. Canada, being nice as ever, have fallen behind in their commitments.

The wealthy York family, led by patriarch Charles (Peter Gallagher) and his second wife Dawn (Uni Parker), have invited their four adult children to their mansion home. Peter’s a famous news anchor particularly conscious of his legacy, but also his regrets at not being a better father. Dawn is a famous celebrity chef. When we meet her, she’s meticulously preparing a meal while holding back tears. Turns out, Peter and Dawn have decided to “enlist”, choosing to sacrifice themselves if it means their children will be free to live their lives without worry.

Here’s the thing: the Yorks are all pretty terrible. Jay Baruchel is the eldest son, Jared, who can barely disguise his many prejudices, especially who he thinks should be forced to enlist. Emily Hampshire is corrupt, scandal-plagued CEO Rachel. Alanna Bale is Ashley, a failed actress and family disappointment. And then there’s brown-skinned adopted son Noah, played by Sebastian Chacon, a recovering addict with a long history of relapse.

Cronenberg and Sparaga flesh out the world building with clever details, mostly revealed by television segments (David Cronenberg narrates some of them), because the Yorks are really only concerned about themselves. We are introduced to DOCS (Department of Citizen Strategy), which literally goes to each home and collects each dead body. It’s become a little cottage industry, and guys like Bob (Enrico Colantoni, always chipper just as he was on Veronica Mars) are paid per corpse. So when Dawn suddenly chickens out and runs away, leaving Charles to enlist on his own…well, DOCS isn’t going anywhere until they get that second York body. Bob gives them two whole hours to decide which of the York clan will die and take Dawn’s place.

Humane could’ve been established in the same universe as the recent ‘Purge‘ movies, because they both take class and racial differences to the extreme. It’s no surprise to learn that the first to “enlist” are prisoners, then undocumented immigrants, and finally, those poor families who need the $250K that’s offered as compensation.  The world has careened from one broken system to another, possibly more dangerous one.

As nifty an idea as Humane offers, actual character interactions between the Yorks are pretty bland and obvious, reducing each to a single dominant trait. Designed like a dialogue-dense chamber piece, the film lurches in the opening act as the dire situation begins to unfold. It picks up as the siblings do the inevitable and start turning on one another violently, before singling out one to stalk and potentially sacrifice to the DOCS gods. This is also when the film is at its funniest, offering Baruchel and Hampshire, both comedy pros with a knack for sharp-edged humor, their best moments to shine. Cronenberg shows a knack for building tension as the York kiddos stalk one another through the estate, with Bob and his crew of armed mercenaries waiting patiently outside on the clock.

But the film totally belongs to Colantoni, who pulls a Joker-level performance as the double-talking Bob. While our sympathies to the Yorks are fluid, shifting as more secrets about them emerge, it’s always through the lens of Bob that we give a damn about them. Both affable and obviously a bit psychotic, we believe it when Rachel’s exempt daughter Mia (Sirena Gulamgaus) suggests that he “just likes to watch people die.” Bob has a sob story, too, though, and a lot of righteous indignation burning in his gut, so we also find ourselves rooting for him to be the hero of this story. He can spout the importance of his work to the world while also grinning slyly as the Yorks turn on one another. It’s a masterful turn by a beloved character who has long deserved this moment.

Through Colantoni’s volatile performance and Cronenberg’s confident direction, Humane has a twisted sense of humor and unpredictability that makes for an entertaining time and a promising launch to her career.

Humane is available now in theaters and VOD.

Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-humaneCredit to Caitlin Cronenberg, daughter of David Cronenberg, that with her directorial debut Humane she chose not to directly follow in her father's footsteps. At least, not by mimicking his early body horror work. But there are certainly some similarities in his most recent...