Humane Review | Survival of the Cattiest

by Andrew Parker

Although it plays off familiar post-apocalyptic and home invasion thriller set-ups, director Caitlin Cronenberg’s debut feature Humane coasts swiftly along under the power of its own confidence and the contributions of a wickedly delightful ensemble cast. Humane isn’t as strenuously concerned with the overall freshness of its concept, but it does care a lot about how it plays and comes across. The result is a thoughtful, purposefully chaotic, and darkly comedic trip through the dark side of the rich and powerful.

It’s sometime in the unspecified future, and the world has gone to shit (or at least has gotten worse than things already are in our own reality). All international borders have been closed due to a climate crisis so devastating that cut-backs and resource rationing haven’t been able to counterbalance. Every country on Earth has now been forced to lose 20% of their population, and governments are looking for volunteers willing to euthanize themselves for the financial gain of their own families. 

Former newscaster Charles York (Peter Gallagher) doesn’t need the money, but he would like some degree of glory. Charles assembles his three biological children – Jared (Jay Baruchel), a blowhard academic and terrible father who thinks this population reduction tactic is a great idea, Rachel (Emily Hampshire), a ruthless, mean, and embattled pharmaceutical CEO plagued by criminal allegations, and youngest Ashley (Alanna Bale), a struggling actress of medium talent with few prospects – and his adopted son, Noah (Sebastian Chacon), a recovering, wounded addict haunted by his past actions, for a family dinner to say that he and their restauranteur step-mother (Uni Park) have decided to volunteer for the program. But what’s meant as an opportunity for the kids to say goodbye to their father hits a major snag when one of them takes a runner and decides they can’t go through with dying. When the independent contractors working on behalf of the government – led by the eerily chipper Bob (Enrico Colantoni) – show up to claim their bodies, they’re extremely dismayed. They can’t go back without two bodies, so the Yorks are given two hours to decide who among them is going to die as a replacement. And Bob won’t take no for an answer.

Humane is a fine addition to the canon of horror thrillers built around loathsome people who would put everyday lower class people into harms way on a daily basis, but will never step up to do anything genuinely charitable or world bettering themselves. The script from Michael Sparaga (Servitude, United We Fan) has distinct and noticeable shades of The Purge and The Strangers franchises in terms of plotting, but there’s a lot more dark, playful comedy in here that plays well to the strengths of Cronenberg’s cast. The joy in watching something like Humane doesn’t come from the details of an elaborately built world, but rather in watching people squirm under extreme and deadly pressure. The new wrinkles in Humane matter more than the familiar backbone.

Cronenberg nicely makes the most of her background as a photographer. Working from a limited indie movie budget that’s predominantly set in a single location, Cronenberg’s visual design for the film is one of restrained wealth and taste, perfectly befitting of a family that wants to celebrate their good fortune without shouting it from the rooftops. The low-key elegance accurately gives off the vibe that a funeral of some sort is about to take place, and Cronenberg and her team imbue the scenery with plenty of small, deft visual touches. Humane is a nice movie to look at, but Cronenberg has a keen understanding that the real attraction here is watching some notable performers going head-to-head in a philosophical and psychological experiment with their survival on the line.

Gallagher plays well off the sort of “every-dad” persona he has cultivated over the years to credibly portray a seemingly altogether and altruistic person with a number of skeletons and regrets. Hampshire goes hard as the foul mouthed, quick acting alpha of the group. Baruchel perfectly embodies his tough talking, but cowardly blowhard character. Bale has the tough task of playing the conflicted family member caught in the middle of her siblings’ power plays. Sirena Gulamgaus offers up a nice bit of youthful commentary as Rachel’s put-upon teenage daughter, who was dragged to the family dinner uninvited and is exempt from being killed (because there’s no money in killing minors, apparently). But the biggest standouts in a cast of such heavy hitters are Chacon and Colantoni, with the former building a tremendous amount of audience sympathy as someone whose life might be cut short just as it’s getting back on track, and the latter showing off his perpetually underrated chops as a character actor by making his villain both bumblingly, humorously banal and coldly calculating at the same time. Humane really does rise and fall under the powers of its cast, and Cronenberg couldn’t have asked for better collaborators than these.

Things come unglued in the final act of Humane with a few swerves too many, a clunky coda, and some unusual pacing that never fully connects, but Cronenberg maintains the gleefully nihilistic nastiness to the bitter end. It’s a bit of an off-key-note to end on, but not in a way that damages everything that came before it. It’s another clever riff on familiar thriller tropes that plays on Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game, assuredly balancing its subtextual themes with straightforward thrills. Humane is a well made, frequently entertaining thriller with a good amount of brains and a healthy amount of bloodletting. Just like the core body retrieval service at the heart of Cronenberg’s film, the viewer gets precisely what they signed up for.

Humane opens in select theatres and streams on VOD starting Friday, April 26, 2024.

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