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There’s no rule that says that when the son or daughter of a famous filmmaker becomes a director too, he or she has to follow in their parent’s artistic footsteps. But the children of director David Cronenberg have turned out to be chips off the old shock-theater block. In movies like “Possessor” and “Infinity Pool,” the 44-year-old Brandon Cronenberg has proved himself to be a skillful purveyor of body horror and I-dare-you-not-to-look-away extremity. And now, with “Humane,” the 39-year-old Caitlin Cronenberg has directed her own first feature, a dark-as-midnight domestic thriller about how climate change, totalitarianism, and euthanasia all go together. The movie, which takes the form of a dinner party from hell, is Caitlin Cronenberg’s own thing, but it’s all about crimes of the future.

Few real-world topics are more urgent than climate change, yet as dramatic feature-film material the meltdown of the planet has always had the potential to make one’s eyes glaze over. That’s why the climate-change movies that have made their mark tend to be built around flamboyant hooks. Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” (1995) was mocked at the time, but its vision of aquatic apocalypse was highly watchable in a junk-spectacle way, and ahead of the curve. In “First Reformed” (2018), the director Paul Schrader juggled so many filmmaking tropes — it was like “Diary of a Rolling Country Thunder in the Winter Light” — that he deftly converted eco-terrorism into art-thriller meditation.

“Humane” pulls a comparable bait-and-switch. The film’s premise is that climate changed has metastasized, to the point that none of the earth’s population has enough food, water, or resources. An emergency decree by the UN has dictated that every country will have one year to meet its population-reduction goal, which is to cull 20 percent of its people. 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 “enlist” — that is, to volunteer for euthanasia. If they do so, giving up their lives for the greater good, the government will pay them $250,000 tax free. In other words, they can die and help set up their families. “Humane” was written by Michael Sparaga, and one of the things that’s savvy about it is the way the film plays, almost subliminally, off the current mood of economic desperation. (Instead of just being horrified, we’re supposed to hear the terms of enlistment and think, “Not a bad deal.”)  

From this degraded-future premise, you might expect to see a movie full of swirling crowds of people in chaos. But “Humane” is about one family, and it’s set almost entirely inside a mansion — a veritable castle of a home, built out of 18th-century brick, with a turret and a five-story tower. It looks like the sort of place where the Munsters could 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 enough guy, but he’s full of himself. That’s why his adult children don’t trust him. He has summoned all four of them to meet for a dinner party: Jared (Jay Baruchel), a divorced weasel of a professor who goes on TV to be a bureaucratic cheerleader for the enlistment program; Rachel (Emily Hampshire), a seething corporate snake; Ashley (Allana Bale), an aspiring actress whose career has turned out to be nothing, leaving her miserable; and Noah (Sebastian), Charles’s adopted son, a bohemian nervous wreck who’s a piano prodigy and also a recovering addict who killed someone in a car accident (he’s got a prominent scar on his cheek). This is a brood so angry and lost that Eugene O’Neill might tell them to lighten up. But Cronenberg turns out to be a terrific director of actors, and we’re held by the toxic theatrical juiciness of the sibling rivalry.

Why a dinner party? Charles is using it to announce to his children that he has enlisted. He plans to die by euthanasia — that very night — and wants to bid everyone goodbye. (His wife is sacrificing herself too.) 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 about it. Before long, men in white jumpsuits show up from D.O.C.S. (the Department of Citizen Strategy), the corporate entity the government has put in charge of euthanizing people. The squad leader, Bob (Enrico Colantoni), looks like a guy you’d see in a bowling alley, but he’s a bit of a creep, with a penchant for jaunty gallows humor. He administers the lethal injection to Charles in a peaceful enough fashion. But Dawn, Charles’s wife? She has vanished. Which leads to the real problem: Since the two of them signed an enlistment contract, someone from the York family — one of the four children — is going to have to volunteer to be euthanized in her place. They’ve got two hours to decide who it’s going to be.

“Humane,” which is about what happens from that point on, might be called “Long Day’s Journey into Homicidal Dystopia.” It’s an unabashedly talky movie, but I liked that about it. Cronenberg stages it with a fearless matter-of-factness, with telling nods to issues of corporate surveillance and the evils of private contracting, and with a vivid eye for the schemes and secrets hidden in the Victorian nooks and crannies of that house. She understands how if these four siblings seriously don’t like each other, then the right moment of socio-political collapse might be just the thing to spark their willingness to kill each other. That’s a profoundly misanthropic idea, but it’s far from absurd; it gets you thinking. It’s the sort of edgy situation I thought was sorely missing from “Civil War.” In “Humane,” we watch how far people can go when everything around them is breaking down.  

Cronenberg treats the mansion as an enormous stage set, turning “Humane” into a kind of psychodramatic slasher movie. You could say that one of the film’s themes is privilege. The characters, as the children of a famous newscaster, thought they were exempt from self-sacrifice. But it turns out that a situation this ruthless is coming for everybody. Yet the film’s real theme is that a bureaucracy that’s too corrupt to solve essential problems (like climate change) will end up shredding the social fabric. Because underneath it all, that’s what it mostly knows how to do.



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