Caitlin Cronenberg’s searing domestic thriller

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There is no rule that says that if the son or daughter of a famous filmmaker also becomes a director, he or she must follow in the artistic footsteps of his parents. But director David Cronenberg’s children have turned out to be chips from the old shock theater block. In films like “Possessor” and “Infinity Pool,” 44-year-old Brandon Cronenberg has proven himself to be a skilled purveyor of body horror and I-dare-you-look-away extremity. And now, 39-year-old Caitlin Cronenberg has directed her own first feature film with “Humane,” a midnight domestic thriller about how climate change, totalitarianism and euthanasia all intersect. The film, which takes the form of a dinner party from hell, is Caitlin Cronenberg’s own thing, but is all about crimes of the future.

Few real-world topics are more pressing than climate change, but as dramatic feature film material, planetary collapse has always had the potential to glaze over your eyes. That’s why the films about climate change that have made their mark are often built around flamboyant snags. Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” (1995) was derided at the time, but its vision of aquatic apocalypse was very watchable in a junk-spectacular way, and led the way. In “First Reformed” (2018), director Paul Schrader juggled so many film styles — it was like “Diary of a Rolling Country Thunder in the Winter Light” — that he deftly transformed eco-terrorism into art-thriller meditation.

“Humane” pulls a similar bait-and-switch. The premise of the film is that climate change has metastasized, to the point where none of the world’s population has sufficient food, water or resources. A UN emergency decree has determined that each country has one year to achieve its population reduction target of wiping out 20 percent of its population. In the unnamed country where the film is set (but it was shot in Canada, looks like Canada and feels like Canada, so let’s call it Canada), citizens are invited to “sign up,” that is, to to volunteer for euthanasia. If they do that and give up their lives for the greater good, the government will pay them $250,000 tax-free. In other words, they can die and help build their families. “Humane” was written by Michael Sparaga, and one of its clever things is the way the film, almost unconsciously, taps into the current atmosphere of economic desperation. (Rather than just be shocked, we should hear the terms of participation and think, “Not a bad deal.”)

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From this premise of the degraded future, you would expect a film full of swirling crowds of people in chaos. But “Humane” is about one family, and it takes place almost entirely in a country house — a veritable castle of a house, built of 18th-century brick, with a turret and five-story tower. It looks like the kind of place the Munsters might live, but in fact it’s occupied by Charles York (Peter Gallagher), a retired celebrity newscaster in the Peter Jennings/Dan Rather stentorian liberal mode, and his second wife, Dawn ( Uni Park). ), a venerable Japanese chef.

Charles seems like a decent guy, but he’s full of himself. That’s why his adult children don’t trust him. He’s gathered all four of them for dinner: Jared (Jay Baruchel), a divorced weasel who figures prominently in the government and appears on TV as a bureaucratic cheerleader for the recruitment program; Rachel (Emily Hampshire), a seething corporate snake; Ashley (Allana Bale), an aspiring actress whose career has gone nowhere, leaving her miserable; and Noah (Sebastian), Charles’s adopted son, a bohemian nervous wreck who is a piano prodigy and also a recovering addict who killed someone in a car accident (he has a prominent scar on his cheek). This is a brood so angry and lost that Eugene O’Neill could tell them to lighten up. But Cronenberg turns out to be a great director of actors, and we are gripped by the toxic theatrical juiciness of the sibling rivalry.

Why a dinner party? Charles uses it to announce to his children that he has signed up. He plans to die by euthanasia that same night and wants to say goodbye to everyone. (His wife also sacrifices herself.) This is Charles’ way of leaving a legacy, of dying in a way that will make everyone think well of him. So there’s more than a little family resentment left. It wasn’t long before men in white jumpsuits showed up from DOCS (the Department of Citizen Strategy), the corporate entity tasked by the government with euthanizing people. The team leader, Bob (Enrico Colantoni), looks like a guy you’d see at a bowling alley, but he’s a bit of a creep, with a penchant for gleeful gallows humor. He administers the lethal injection to Charles in a peaceful manner. But Dawn, Charles’ wife? She’s disappeared. Which leads to the real problem: Since they both signed employment contracts, someone from the York family – one of four children – will have to volunteer to be euthanized in her place. They have two hours to decide who it will be.

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“Humane,” which is about what happens from that point on, could be called “Long Day’s Journey into Homicidal Dystopia.” It’s an unashamedly controversial film, but that’s what I liked about it. Cronenberg stages it with fearless sobriety, with knowing nods to issues of private contracts and corporate oversight, and with a vivid eye for the plans and secrets hidden in that house’s Victorian nooks and crannies. She understands that if these four siblings really don’t like each other, the right moment of sociopolitical collapse could be just the right time to fuel their willingness to kill each other. That’s a deeply misanthropic idea, but it’s far from absurd; it makes you think. It’s the kind of tense situation that I thought was sorely lacking in “Civil War.” In ‘Humane’ we look at how far people can go when everything around them breaks down.

Cronenberg treats the mansion as a huge backdrop and turns ‘Humane’ into a kind of psychodramatic slasher film. You could say that one of the themes of the film is privilege. The characters, as children of a famous newscaster, thought they were exempt from self-sacrifice. But it turns out that such a brutal situation is coming for everyone. Yet the real theme of the film is that a bureaucracy too corrupt to solve vital problems (like climate change) will ultimately fragment the social fabric. Because that is what it mainly knows how to do.

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