Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane is Satire on Legacy and Family as a Rabid Brood

Legacy is one hell of a thing. The lessons passed down, a reputation to live up to, or the sum of an existence. Caitlin Cronenberg understands legacy very well. Humane is her first feature film despite working on film sets for many years. Hers is a surname used to describe a particular kind of cinema – Cronenbergian. Through her pioneering father, David and her brother, Brandon, the Cronenberg name has a family legacy. It is particularly fitting that Caitlin Cronenberg chose a film which combines the aftermath of ecological collapse with a publicly beloved and wealthy patriarch gathering his family for his final supper.

The setting is “nigh” – a future where humans still own iPhones and smart televisions delivering the news that the Athens Accord has insisted on a particular kind of carbon reduction to maintain the dwindling resources on the planet. That carbon is humans. The only way to maintain “civilised” societies facing extreme UV radiation, food and water shortages, and quell social and political unrest is to create a scheme where families offer up a corpse or two for credit. Euthanasia as first world policy. Twenty percent of the population must die for a nation to reach its Accord target.

The York family, spearheaded by Charles (Peter Gallagher) a respected journalist, are part of a specific elite. Charles was the face of “honest news” for much of his career. A bastion of trustworthiness beamed into the homes of hundreds of thousands of people as he informed them of the final tree going extinct in the Amazon. Now retired and returning to his expansive manse in Canada with his wife, celebrity chef and restauranteur Dawn Kim (Uni Park).

Dawn immerses herself in cooking a Michelin star worthy meal. Charles fusses over a grand piano being moved into a specific room watching Jared York (Jay Baruchel) defending the euthanasia quota goals for Department of Citizen Services. People are encouraged to enlist for the program as their “gift” to the next generation. Enlistment grants come with financial incentives – a college education or enough money for a deposit on a home. “Enlistment equals opportunity.”

The anthropology professor is caught in a question as to whether people under eighteen should be able to enlist. “It is about giving the next generation and voice and choice – so yes.” The piano mover calls Jared an asshole and Charles agrees. Pan across to a photograph of Jared standing with his father and siblings. A perfectly posed snapshot of privilege.

As the siblings make their way to the house the audience learns about them. Jared is harangued on the telephone by his soon to be ex-wife who tells him that his son is inconsolable learning his father would allow him to die. “Not him… I didn’t mean it like that… We are safe… I know people…”

Everything appears almost copacetic. There are no riots on the suburban streets. People still go about their business just with D.O.C.S workers wheeling out the recently dead to deposit in their branded vans. The news still covers other topics such as Sarah York’s (Emily Robinson) trial for pharmaceutical corporate malfeasance. The Yorks are still in the headlines but for the wrong reasons.

Avoiding the headlines is Noah (Sebastian Chacon) the adopted “black sheep” of the family. Sporting scars and using crutches, Noah is newly sober and in love with Grace (Blessing Adedijo) a fellow addict he met in recovery. Shunned by Noah and Sarah, it has been some time since he saw his father and his siblings except for would-be actress Ashley (Alanna Bale). His little sister and “ride or die” support. He doesn’t want to go but seeing his father and making amends is part of path to rehumanising himself.

Along for the ride is Mia York, Sarah’s tween daughter. Charles is shocked that she is with Sarah as he left specific instruction there were to be no extra guests. A tense standoff between the siblings becomes a chess game of allegiance. Sarah is not interested in any of them and wants to know why Charles, the forever absent father, has decided it is family reunion time – too little far too late. Noah’s arrival prompts walkout threats from Sarah and Jared. Only Ashley is trying to bridge the divide and Mia is sent out of the room.

The announcement that Charles and Dawn have enlisted is made. Jared can’t believe it. Surely the Yorks are safe? No one would want to get rid of them. Enlistment is something which happens to poor people – a kind of engineered natural selection – or more specifically, eugenics.

A knock on the door and the overly friendly but deeply off-putting Bob (Enrico Colantoni) arrives with his armed enforcers. He’s impressed to be in the same room as the fêted Charles York. Of course, a man with such impeccable ethics would choose to enlist as an example for others – and what a generous thing to do for his family ensuring they will be spared any form of drafting. There is just one small problem. Dawn has gone missing. Charles specifically wanted to die with Dawn at his side and tries to call the euthanasia off.

Bob leads him to the study where he presents him with a document. Just sign on the dotted line and Charles will be free. He will also have his assets frozen, his property seized, and his name on a public list of cowards. It would be a terrible shame to muddy the name of a man who met Mandela, Bono, and Beyoncé (the photograph is a wonderful in-joke) in his youth. He does have his legacy to think of and his children certainly are not shining examples.

Charles has his perfect and slightly pontificating death. Noah, a piano prodigy, Chopin for him. Charles tells them he is sorry he spent his life bringing the horror of the world into the home with his reportage – to deliver messages of crises, famines, and war to his children from afar. Be kind he says.

That should be that for the somewhat traumatised family (Sarah is angry at Charles’ arrogant largesse and just wants to take Mia home) – however, the games have just begun. Bob’s company requires two bodies. As Mia is underage it is up to Sarah, Jared, Ashley, and Noah to decide who dies. Cronenberg and screenwriter Michael Sparaga switch gear from a satire about the rich and disconnected to a sadistic bloodbath where Noah is the outsider because he is not “blood” and he squandered everything the York name offered.

The chess board is reset, and working-class Bob is the grandmaster moving his ‘useless people’ around. After all the government propaganda Jared has helped spread and genuinely bought – Noah as one of “those people” (ethnic) is in his eyes part of the problem. Why couldn’t poor countries do better? They are to blame. “I’m not a racist but…” statistics don’t lie.

The York house becomes dog- rip-other-dog-to-shreds. The Yorks converge as a pack on Noah. There are tangible benefits once again. More money for the remaining heirs, a guarantee of safety from conscription, and they remove the weakest link.

Cronenberg mines the black comedy and without sifting the violence out. Blood is thicker than water and there is a lot of blood, and a lot of water. Tears, nosebleeds, grappling, teeth being spat out, wrestling – choke holds. There are also guns wielded by Bob and his contracting crew. Yet, the most effective weapon is surveillance. Every email, phone call, and text has been harvested and there is nothing “the powers that be” don’t know.  

Jay Baruchel might seem like an odd choice for the role of Jared – but he is perfect as the arrogant one-percenter whose entire existence has been bankrolled by his father. He’s also worked with Caitlin before when she was doing still work for Cosmopolis. Picking two of television’s most beloved fathers to go toe-to-toe is marvellous. Sandy Cohen vs. Keith Mars! Alanna Bale is conceited enough to believe it is “the entertainment industry” not her who is the failure. Emily Hampshire is a Canadian screen legend – from Schitt’s Creek to also working in Cosmopolis. Sirena Gulamgaus as the wise and innocent Mia York (“test-tube” daughter of Rachel) is willy and ferocious.

Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane is a brilliantly gory comedy of manners and chamber piece set in a world where humanity is the enemy of itself. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree for the York family – ethics are malleable. Image is everything. They are craven hollow creatures. Noah was the only one who was free.

At some stage David Cronenberg will die (there is a short film co-directed by Caitlin where he embraces his own corpse). Caitlin Cronenberg is not fake news when it comes to being an accomplished artist. She might have “borrowed” some of her father’s people – but she is vital. Humane announces itself – long live the new Cronenberg! Eat the rich before they devour you. The rabid brood are pestilence.

Director: Caitlin Cronenberg

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Peter Gallagher

Writer: Michael Sparaga

Producer: Michael Sparaga

Music: Todor Kobakov

Cinematography: Douglas Koch

Editing: Orlee Buium

Humane is available in America now, with an Australian release to come later in 2024.

Streaming Availability:

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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