Caitlin Cronenberg’s Humane Asks: Who Would You Kill Off in Your Family?

For the good of humanity, of course

Two men and a woman stare in disbelief at a man in a uniform holding a clipboard
Elevation Pictures

Have we forgotten about COVID-19? It’s been less than a year since the WHO declared the global emergency over, and yet COVID is weirdly absent from the culture. Take a quick survey of the cultural landscape—Beyoncé’s honky-tonk triumphalism, the moulded-plastic feminism of Barbie, the jet-fuelled machismo of Top Gun: Maverick—and you’ll glimpse a society seeking not to metabolize recent memories but rather to move past them. By my count, Taylor Swift has at least seven songs about her lightning-quick romance with Matty Healy and only one about the pandemic that upended her life and ours.

When COVID shows up in the culture at all, it’s often just a cameo appearance: a single line in Noah Kahan’s viral hit “Stick Season,” a brief sequence in Joachim Trier’s coming-of-age film The Worst Person in the World. Other times, the references are oblique. The indie horror film Host is about demonic evocation, not COVID, but it takes place entirely on Zoom, a hellscape every bit as terrifying to me as the torture chambers of the Saw franchise. John Mulaney’s Baby J is a stand-up special that doubles as an addiction memoir. But the story Mulaney tells, about a pandemic-era journey into paranoia, compulsivity, and nihilism, feels like an extreme version of an experience we all endured.

Clearly, we’re not yet ready to confront the pandemic head on, which is why the best post-COVID movies aren’t obviously about COVID at all. Humane, the debut film (out April 26) by the photographer Caitlin Cronenberg—sister of Brandon, daughter of David—takes place in an alternative present, a world in which things have gone horribly wrong. Ecological collapse is in full swing. Water is rationed. The sun has become bright and deadly. People carry around strange Warholian umbrellas lined with UV-protective foil.

Overpopulation, we’re told, is driving the crisis. Humanity will either survive in reduced numbers or it won’t survive at all. And so the government has created a euthanasia program. Anybody who sacrifices themself for the continuity of the species will be rewarded with a $250,000 cheque, tax free and payable to their next of kin. Creepy euphemisms abound. The state mercenaries who drive from home to home in mortuary RVs loaded up with anesthetics and neuromuscular blockers are employed by the newly formed Department of Citizen Strategy (“D.O.C.S.”). Nobody signs up to be killed; people “enlist” to undergo “the procedure.” If enlistment numbers falter, “conscription” may be coming soon.

Most of Cronenberg’s film takes place in a single house, an old Richardsonian Romanesque mansion that looks like it belongs in Upstate New York. Charles York, the wealthy patriarch of the York family (played by Peter Gallagher, of The O.C.) has gathered his four adult children for dinner. He tells his kids that he and his wife, Dawn (Uni Park), have enlisted to be euthanized. (As his children will soon discover, Charles has scheduled the procedure for later that evening.)

His declaration sets the action in motion. Quickly, the film devolves into a blood-spattered domestic drama—Long Day’s Journey into Night but with kitchen knives and fire pokers. The film is lurid, melodramatic, and built atop a wildly improbable conceit. It’s also more relatable than anything I’ve recently seen.

In 2009, Cronenberg told the Globe and Mail that she “never had an urge at all to make moving pictures.” Film was the family business; photography was hers. And yet she was eager to exploit the storytelling possibilities of the still image. Her celebrity and fashion shots always felt as if they were embedded in larger narratives. They begged questions: Why is Dan Levy walking so many dogs? How did Drake get up onto the pod of the CN Tower? “From early in my career,” she says, “my style of photography was described as cinematic.”

In 2014, the actor Annie Murphy asked Cronenberg to film a fake music video for the web series The Plateaus, about an indie band that loses its lead singer in a bizarre accident. “It felt like a natural extension of what I’d been doing,” Cronenberg says. “It felt righter than right.” And so, gig by gig—a commercial here, a music video there—she inched her way toward filmmaking.

Her best pre-Humane project is the 2018 photography book The Endings, a collaboration with set designer Jessica Ennis. The book tells twenty-eight stories in photos, each about a woman navigating the aftermath of a breakup and each featuring actors that Cronenberg and Ennis commissioned for the project. Danielle Brooks abandons the home she shared with her husband to live unattached in New York. Juno Temple turns to cocaine and sex to blot out the memory of her ex-lover. Emily Hampshire gleefully trashes her former partner’s home. Here we have performers. And sets. And narratives developed over a series of images. This is basically cinema, just with fewer frames. “I never shot with strobe lighting,” Cronenberg says of The Endings. “I always shot with continuous lighting, because I wanted the actors to feel like they had the freedom to exist in this space.”

When, in 2019, Cronenberg’s screenwriter friend Michael Sparaga first showed her the script for Humane, she wasn’t immediately on board. But by April 2020—when she and Sparaga had their first Zoom call about the project—the ideas were resonating with her in ways they hadn’t before. “The more I thought about them,” she says, “the less I could shake them off.”

To live through the onset of a pandemic, Cronenberg discovered, is to watch a new world being made, an alien culture with its own system of signs and totems. People hoarded toilet paper as if it were firewood. Hand sanitizer became the new liquid gold. Medical masks were suddenly as divisive as anarchist symbols, MAGA hats, and the Yankees logo. Cronenberg was particularly fascinated by the ways in which people customized the accoutrements of crisis, with homemade, couture, and branded masks featuring Hollywood IP, like the Spider-Man one her son wore to school. “The early COVID crisis helped me imagine what the early days of an environmental collapse might look and feel like,” she says.

The action in Humane is almost entirely confined to that spooky mansion. But the few world-building shots at the outset of the movie are packed with visual information. (If Cronenberg brings a filmmaker’s imagination to her photographs, she also brings a photographer’s economical eye to film.) We see bedraggled people lining up for water rations beneath multicoloured umbrellas and a sickly blue sky. Then a D.O.C.S. van idling outside a bungalow with corrugated plastic on the windows. Then a body being hauled out by men in coveralls who move with the sluggish nonchalance of post-office workers. Then a drive down a highway to a wealthier precinct, where water gushes from the automated sprinklers. In a mere two and a half minutes, we get a picture of an entire era: its rituals, class divides, and daily horrors made banal by repetition.

Inevitably, Humane will get compared to the works of David and Brandon Cronenberg. When asked whether she’s working in the “family style,” Cronenberg demurs. “I truly see no comparison,” she says. But families, she acknowledges, have sensibilities. And the one she grew up in was talky and brainy. “My dad is fearless,” she adds. “He fought against censorship and for the freedom to make the films he wanted to make, even when people told him not to.” When you grow up in an atmosphere like that, you’re unafraid to be weird. And socially observant. And transgressive.

If there is a Cronenbergian style, it’s a kind of grotesque parody. The characters in the films are often obsessive and broken. Recall the tycoon in Cosmopolis (directed by David) who fixates on the asymmetry of his prostate, or the cult leader in Crash (also David) who meticulously restages the car accident that killed James Dean, or the tourist in Infinity Pool (Brandon) who enjoys watching clones of himself getting slaughtered. We observe these characters with disgust and maybe a flicker of recognition. Something about us is being laid bare here—our dark impulses, our prurient curiosity, our bottomless erotic needs.

The same goes for Humane, a story that gets cringier by the minute. When Charles announces his plans to die, his children are predictably furious. A prominent TV journalist, he understands his enlistment as an act of noblesse oblige. The kids see things differently. During their childhoods, their dad was perennially absent, chasing career goals that were, apparently, more high minded and important to him than the mere raising of a family. Now he has found yet another way to burnish his legacy, by absenting himself from their lives forever.

As for Dawn, we can’t really tell what she thinks, until she quietly slips away after the announcement, leaving only a short missive: “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” No sooner is the note discovered than the doorbell rings. It’s the D.O.C.S. guy, Bob (Enrico Colantoni), a cheery bureaucrat who seems to love his job way too much, given that he works in public service—and that his job is killing people. Bob waits until Charles has been taken out in a body bag before explaining to the York siblings that he has targets to meet. When he drove out to the estate, he expected to leave with two corpses, not one. And by God he will get what he came for. And so he has stationed armed guards outside the house. The siblings have two hours to decide who among them will be joining their dad in the back of Bob’s RV.

That’s when the night goes wild. Chekhov once said that playwrights (and, by extension, filmmakers) should never show a piano in act one unless they plan to show a person being battered with the leg of a piano bench in act three. Okay, those weren’t his exact words, but the rule is duly observed in Humane. Cronenberg isn’t aiming for naturalism here; she’s aiming for satire.

And the satire lands because it has so many possible targets. Sibling relations are an obvious one. Once the weapons come out, the family home becomes a domain of ever-shifting allegiances. A character may be swinging a fire poker at his brother in one moment and then desperately trying to save his life the next. Is there a label for this dynamic? This mixture of murderous rage and fierce protectiveness? The word “familial” comes to mind. (Disappointingly, Cronenberg says that Humane isn’t about her family. “I’m going to throw Michael under the bus, here,” she adds. “He’s one of four siblings, and he wrote the script.”)

The film also works as a send-up of liberal proceduralism: the belief in advanced societies that any act, no matter how unseemly—a drone strike, a prison execution—can be justified so long as it’s officialized with paperwork. There’s no shortage of paperwork in Humane. The D.O.C.S. guys distribute it the way Catholics say “Hail Mary,” seeking bureaucratic absolution for state-sanctioned sins.

But the film reads, primarily, as a parody of the way humans behave (or rather misbehave) in times of crisis. The premise—four characters are forced to choose who among them will be sacrificed for the greater good—is obviously hokey. Except, is it? During the acute waves of COVID, ER doctors, struggling to ration ventilators in wards full of gasping patients, were forced to make agonizing choices about who lives and who dies.

Not all of us were as heroic as they were. We humans have a strange tendency to confront moral distress with breezy certainty. There’s a scene in Humane in which the oldest York sibling, Jared (Jay Baruchel), explains to his younger brother, Noah (Sebastian Chacon), that, by any reasonable standard, Noah should be the one to die. Noah is adopted. And he’s a recovering drug addict. Doesn’t he owe his siblings recompense for the strife he brought into their world? “If you ask me,” says Jared, “Noah should sacrifice himself for us. It only makes sense.”

It only makes sense. I recognize that confidence. It’s the confidence of government leaders in Florida and Alberta who insisted that children should return to school even though they could come home and infect their parents. Or of teachers’ union reps in the United States who wanted the schools to remain closed despite the cost to childhood development.

It’s the confidence of those among us who greeted the miracle of the vaccine by loudly declaring that they’d never get the jab. Or of those who argued that anti-vaxers should be forced by law to accept the shot, even though coercing citizens into undergoing new medical procedures is anathema in a liberal society. The times were confusing. We were all so hopelessly lost and yet so certain that we had the answers.

Which suggests a possible reason why we prefer not to remember pandemics: because they’re embarrassing. As I watched the siblings in Humane bludgeon each other with trophies and baseball bats—and then justify their actions with words every bit as blunt as the instruments in their bloody hands—I felt a creeping sense of complicity. There’s a scene in which Bob, the D.O.C.S. guy, explains to Charles’s granddaughter why he set this whole murderous scenario in motion. By letting the York siblings kill each other, he claims, he’s striking a blow for class equality. After all, hard-working poor people get euthanized all the time. Why not spread the pain around? “Is it so wrong to not want the new world to be filled with terrible people like your family?” he says. When I heard this line, I thought: Yup, fair point. Then I felt a horrible sense of shame.

Crisis is supposed to ennoble us. But does it? Our ignominious behaviour during COVID—our tendency to hoard resources, to pontificate on social media, to judge other people’s misconduct while giving ourselves a pass, and to insist, with self-righteous certainty, that the hard moral quandaries of the era weren’t really hard at all—is yet another legacy of the pandemic, along with our pain and grief, that we haven’t yet fully processed. Humane pushes us to face that discomfiting reality. “It is meant to feel like an overblown, insane version of the truth,” Cronenberg says. The characters, she adds, are despicable versions of us.

Despicable and occasionally vulnerable too. There’s a scene early in the film in which Charles, alone in his palatial bedroom, pulls back the UV-protective film on the window and basks in the sunlight that streams in. It’s one of the few moments of genuine serenity in the film. Of course, we don’t know what’s going on in his head. Perhaps he’s dreaming of sweet oblivion, which will be coming his way shortly. Or perhaps he’s pining for a return to the old days, when the sun was benevolent, umbrellas were for rain, and we could still tell ourselves that, beneath it all, people were noble at heart. If I could get back there, he might be thinking, I’d forget that any of this nonsense ever happened.

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.