To paraphrase former White House Chief of Staff Tom Card, whispering in the ear of George W. Bush: a second Cronenberg offspring has made a movie. Whereas her older brother Brandon Cronenberg has more openly sought to replicate the visceral, satirical body horror of their father’s earliest work, offering some delightfully nasty thrills with the likes of Antiviral and Infinity Pool––even as he remained comfortably within his dad’s shadow––Caitlin Cronenberg couldn’t be accused of simply conforming to the expectations that come with her family’s brand-name recognition. The biggest surprise with her directorial debut Humane might be just how comfortably this could sit alongside Blumhouse and Screen Gems shlock at your local multiplex: a well-engineered, single-location thriller that prioritizes bloody, gut-punch twists and turns over the more thoughtful introspection that typically accompanies this in a Cronenberg effort.

The lack of a biting social critique might initially seem underwhelming considering the timely premise, set in a not-too-distant future––or perhaps alternate present?––where global population control via euthanasia has become the main method of combating the climate crisis. We learn very early on that this system has been skewed so the poorest in society make up the vast majority of the 20% of the population earmarked for death, all but promising a rude awakening for the wealthy York family when these real-world horrors infringe upon their family meeting. But this dystopian table-setting soon becomes irrelevant as the mansion doors close and it becomes clear that what we’re watching is not entirely dissimilar to the first movie in the Purge series: a home-invasion shocker entertaining enough to make you briefly stop thinking about what is happening in the wider world of these characters, even if you still wish it was explored at a greater length.

The familial conflict stems from the announcement that retired newsreader patriarch Charles (Peter Gallagher) plans to “volunteer” the lives of himself and his partner Dawn (Uni Park), the endpoint of a year-long, First Reformed-style blackpilling that comes hand-in-hand with reporting on natural disasters for decades. His family––most notably his smarmy political consultant son Jared (Jay Baruchel), who defends the euthanasia program on TV every single day––objects, but it’s too late: this farewell dinner was timed to coincide with the euthanasia. But Dawn quickly goes missing, and Charles discovers it’s impossible to back out when two dead bodies have been promised and a contract has been signed.

The satire inherent to this premise, which promises to explore everything from bodily autonomy to the disparity between social classes, never goes beyond the surface; much like the aforementioned Blumhouse franchise, the real-world commentary doesn’t extend further than what is relevant to the plot at any given moment. It’s here where Humane will be compared unfavorably to the work of her father. There’s never any sense of a wider world beyond the narrative; once the doors close, so does any interest in what’s going on over the other side, the dystopia a convoluted MacGuffin designed to set a claustrophobic tale of family backstabbing in place. However, once the film shifts into conventional-thriller territory, it proved engrossing enough that I never felt I needed to learn more about this socially fragmented dystopia––sometimes the only purpose a high concept serves is a convenient excuse to lock a family up and give them reason to quite literally knife each other in the back.

Any early suggestion that Humane may offer more food for thought goes out the window the second the menacing Bob (Enrico Colantoni, channeling the broad ’90s villain roles of Kevin Spacey) shows up, refusing to leave without two corpses to take with him. It’s here where less-assured aspects of the initial satire begin making sense––they were supposed to be approached as broad archetypes all along. Jared, for example, was never intended to be read as an avatar for class hypocrisy, but as an unholy blend of Kendall and Roman Roy from Succession: a bumbling failson who nevertheless falls upwards, even as he gleefully declares that his 10-year-old son should volunteer to be euthanized on live television. The other siblings are sketched out even less––a distant older sister, a recovering-addict younger brother, and a supportive sibling whose empathy goes out the window the second life-or-death stakes are established––but as pawns within a tightly engineered narrative, this hardly matters. You don’t come to multiplex-style schlock like this for the depth of characterization. It’s to those films Humane should be compared, not the weightier works of Cronenberg Sr.

Humane opens in theaters on April 26.

No more articles