‘Humane’ Review: Jay Baruchel Stars in Caitlin Cronenberg’s Tense but Underbaked Dystopian Thriller

Caitlin Cronenberg’s assured directorial debut Humane begins with the planet plagued by ecological disaster. After decades of ignoring the warnings of scientists, society is battling the threat of its own extinction. Erratic weather patterns are commonplace. A scarcity of food and water has led to strict rations. Curfews abound. The ozone layer is anemic from years of abuse, leaving little protection from UV rays. Everyone walks around with reflective umbrellas.

In this not-so-distant dystopian future, countries have one year to reduce their population by 20 percent. These grim terms are part of the Athens accord, an emergency international meeting convened to respond to this man-made crisis. In North America, where Humane is vaguely set, the government has created a voluntary euthanasic program. Families of citizens who enlist are paid $250,000 and receive gratitude in the form of a shoddily constructed “Thank you” video on a nationally televised piece of propaganda. The depopulation scheme is handled by the ominously named Department of Citizen Strategy (D.O.C.S), a nascently fascist arm of the government constantly under scrutiny from watchdog groups and activists for their lack of transparency.

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Written and produced by Michael Sparaga, Humane is the kind of contemporary post-apocalyptic thriller and class satire that’s become more commonplace as of late: Imagine the eeriness of Leave the World Behind with the ridiculousness of Bodies Bodies Bodies and the inventive cruelty of The Menu. The slender drama revolves around a wealthy family whose stern and calculating patriarch, Charles York (a fine Peter Gallagher), decides to enlist in the D.O.C.S. program. There’s a controlled tension to Humane, which features some prescient world-building, good performances and an appropriate dose of humor. Cronenberg, an heir of the body horror genre, also throws in some bloody and gruesome mutilations as a treat. But Humane also struggles to balance the scale of its ambitions, which means some narrative threads get left behind and others are only hastily engaged with.

Charles is a career news anchor who regrets his complicity in the climate crisis. Over an elaborate, multi-course dinner prepared by his wife, Dawn (Uni Park), he recalls the day the Amazon rainforest burned to the ground. “I knew full well that the last thing this planet needed was more people,” Charles says to his four children during their last supper-style meal, “and what did I do? I had children.” Dawn, a former chef forced to close her restaurant because of a rise in anti-Asian violence across the country, stands frozen next to Charles. She plans to enlist as well.

The announcement shocks the York heirs, most of whom are estranged from him and each other. Jared (Jay Baruchel), an anthropology professor helping the government spearhead this initiative, protests. “You don’t need the money,” he reminds his father, affirming how this program, like so many, disproportionately harms poor people. Rachel (Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire), who is in the middle of a high-profile lawsuit for her company’s fraudulent therapeutics, is stunned. Noah (Daisy Jones & The Six‘s Sebastian Chacon), a recovering addict and an adopted member of the family, and struggling actress Ashley (Alanna Bale) have similar reactions.

Humane is a propulsive narrative, but it’s Cronenberg’s intuitive pacing that keeps the plot tense and moving. Soon after Charles informs his children of his plans, Bob (an excellent Enrico Colantoni), a D.O.C.S. representative, rings the doorbell. He’s ready, almost gleefully so, to get to business. The York operation hits a snag when Dawn disappears. Her motivations for backing out of the deal are never clear and her quiet exit represents the beginning of Humane’s nagging plot holes. Because D.O.C.S. must leave with two bodies, according to rules that no one considers double checking, Bob tells the siblings they must decide among them who should die. While they duke it out, D.O.C.S. takes Rachel’s daughter, Mia (Sirena Gulamgaus), who was present for dinner, hostage. The siblings are given only a few hours, which leads to a nerve-fraying series of moments.

With this set-up, audiences are primed to delight in the self-annihilation of the wealthy and privileged. There’s some satisfaction to this in Humane because of the committed performances and how Cronenberg, working with DP Douglas Koch, renders the house as a murderous trap. Baruchel gives a compelling turn as a two-faced academic who furthers the government’s talking points while understanding that his own family’s wealth shields him from danger. Hampshire channels Shiv Roy in her portrayal of a C-suite executive under intense public scrutiny, and Chacon is a scene-stealer, making Noah more than a sorrowful outsider in this self-involved group.

Still, there’s much left to be desired here. Even as you laugh watching Colantoni and Gulamgaus, as Bob and Mia, verbally sparring, or feel your heart race as Noah turns a corner in the house, there’s a sense of incompleteness. Questions about Dawn pop up and one wonders about Grace, Noah’s girlfriend (played by Blessing Adedijo). Who are these women, notably of color, living in a world ordered around what essentially amounts to a eugenics program? And what of Bob, whose disdain propels the film but gets only a cursory acknowledgement? What about the siblings and their respective histories with each other?

One can’t help but wish for deeper world- and character-building. Humane offers just enough action and sociopolitical scope that you root for it to deliver more, and better, on its promise.

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