‘Humane’ Review: Caitlin Cronenberg’s Directorial Debut Is a Sharp but Slight Thriller About a Rich Family Forced to Sacrifice One of Their Own

A single-location thriller set in an imminent-seeming future where food scarcity has forced every country on Earth to cull its population by 20 percent, Caitlin Cronenberg’s slight but steel-eyed “Humane” takes a hard look — or at least an unflinching glance — at the irreconcilable relationship between self-interest and saving the planet. The broadly representative premise screenwriter Michael Sparaga uses in order to examine that dynamic: A family dinner at the castle-like estate of a former news anchor (Peter Gallagher), which is tense even before the wealthy retiree tells his four adult children that he and his most recent wife (Uni Park as Dawn) have volunteered to be euthanized later that same evening.

This news takes Charles’ kids by surprise, as their family doesn’t need the $250,000 payout that the government offers “heroic” — aka poor — people who agree to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but there isn’t time enough to argue before a frighteningly chipper agent from the Department of Citizen Strategy knocks on their front door. His name is Bob, he’s played by “Veronica Mars” actor Enrico Colantoni, and his heavily armed team won’t leave until both of the body bags they brought with them have been packed full with fresh corpses.

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There’s just one problem: Dawn has flown the coop. Which means that Charles’ kids, most of whom assumed their money would exempt them from state-sponsored suicide, suddenly find themselves facing a hyper-pressurized version of the same predicament that has confronted billions of less affluent people around the world, as they’re forced to weigh the value of their lives against the value of their deaths. Disagreements ensue. So do stabbings, bludgeonings, and some gruesome fun with gas embolisms. This is a Cronenberg production after all, even if Caitlin — an accomplished photographer whose directorial debut tacitly engages with the nuances of nepotism — lightens the weight of her last name by privileging social commentary over creative violence in a drably styled debut more driven by the moral rhetoric of its plot machinations than it is by the nightmare imagery it’s able to manufacture from them.

The stakes are clear from the start, if also expressed more effectively during the film’s brief prologue than they are during the “Fall of the House of Usher” cosplay that follows (“Humane” leans hard on TV news footage to convey the global crisis at hand, but it’s a choice that feels more apt than cheap in a movie so un-shy about using our pandemic memories to bridge the narrow gap between its world and our own). All international borders are closed, and every nation has exactly one year to meet its quotas. Russia is way ahead of schedule.

Canada — or at least the Canada-like country where this story takes place — is not. Jared, a character brought to life by another canny and compellingly ambivalent performance from Jay Baruchel’s “Blackberry” era, is doing his part to help. A former anthropologist who’s made a lucrative heel turn by pivoting into punditry and becoming a rabid mouthpiece for the government, Charles’ eldest son insists that he’d even volunteer his own child for the cause (a televised claim that, amusingly, leads to a less than happy phone call from his ex-wife). Other cogs in the euthanasia machine aren’t quite so enthusiastic about the roles they’re paid to play; one D.O.C.S. employee hurls his morning coffee at a propaganda billboard as he drives around town for bodies to collect, the hearse driver struggling with the true cost of keeping himself and his loved ones alive.

Bob doesn’t share that struggle. Bob is a true believer. He loves to show up on the worst day of people’s lives with a beaming smile on his face, which makes him a perfect foil for the cynical entitlement he finds waiting for him at Charles’ house; if watching Jared and his siblings go full “Lord of the Flies” on each other brought us as much pleasure as it brings to Bob, “Humane” would be the most enjoyable movie of the year.

Alas, it isn’t much fun to watch these thinly sketched characters do much of anything, even if Sparaga manages to sprinkle a handful of clever details into the margins. It’s the youngest of the four siblings who inherits the best of them, as frustrated actress Ashley (Alanna Bale) is given ample opportunity to make the most of her talents over the course of the evening. Sociopathic pharma executive Rachel (Emily Hampshire), on the other hand, is sorely missing Jared’s errant hints of humanity, and the movie suffers from giving these kids a sister who so plainly “deserves” to die from the start. Their brother Noah (Sebastian Chacon), a soft-spoken, facially scarred piano prodigy who was adopted from a South American country at birth, seems to veer too hard in the other direction, at least until a second act reveal threatens to complicate his moral coding.

On the other hand, that new information — too foundational to the film’s story to be regarded as a “twist” — epitomizes the tortured didacticism of a thriller that proves more effective when operating on less defined terms. Charles’ performatively sincere admission that he questions having four children in the face of ecological catastrophe is far more unnerving than the flaccid spectacle of watching his kids trying to kill each other with a fireplace poker, least of all in a house so dim and moribund that it made me wonder if the film’s government had banned overhead lights in addition to red meat (Cronenberg delights in a little viscera, but not enough that she invites comparison to the other members of her own family).

But “Humane” doesn’t want to be a hard-hitting drama about moral equity in an unequal world that nobody escapes alive, it wants to be a satirical — and increasingly basic — thriller about the evils of financially incentivized health policies in a world where nobody deserves to die, and it’s hard for it to succeed on those terms without caring about which of its characters ends up in Bob’s other body bag.

Cronenberg and Colantoni both seem to recognize this to a certain degree, as they conspire to make Bob into a sinister angel of death and an audience surrogate all in one terrifyingly fun stroke. Does he believe in what D.O.C.S. is doing, or does he just get off on the thrill and power of watching other people die for a problem that’s purely theoretical for him (for now)? Bob’s reply sums up the scariest and most affecting truth behind Cronenberg’s debut, as well as the litany of crises that inspired its creation: “Can’t it be both?”

Grade: C+

IFC Films will release “Humane” in theaters on Friday, April 26.

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