Though not so long ago nearly every Nicolas Cage movie was a big-budget, wide-release affair, these days his movies are mostly so low-profile you might be forgiven for not knowing he still makes ’em — let alone that he’s done some of his best-ever work very recently. The gonzo displays of blackly comedic quasi-horror pics “Mom and Dad” and “Mandy” fall into that category (though recent thriller “Looking Glass” served no one particularly well), and new Canadian feature “The Humanity Bureau” is none too shabby a showcase, either.
This dystopian road movie is very specifically set in a near-future U.S., but in character couldn’t be more Canuck: more interested in character dynamics and shaggy humor than spectacle, more picaresque than action-driven. Still, director Rob W. King and screenwriter Dave Schultz’s engaging effort has enough standard genre elements to satisfy more open-minded sci-fi fans, and its political-allegory angle is ultimately quite potent without becoming too heavy-handed.
Opening text informs, “In the near future, after economic catastrophe and climate change came famine, the great migration and the civil war.” In the face of infrastructure collapse and social breakdown, the U.S. isolated itself, walling up cities in “security zones” — although some prefer to live less directly under the government’s thumb. Regardless, all are subject to “productivity ratings” by the titular organization to determine whether each citizen is a “burden to the system.” If they are, they’re subject to deportation to a supposed “better life” in a place called “New Eden.” Should those “Soylent Green” bells go off in your head, you’re not alone: Many citizens don’t wanna go, having heard dire rumors ballasted by the fact that no émigré to New Eden is ever heard from again.
Cage’s Noah Cross is one of the Humanity Bureau’s many agents, tasked with evaluating residents — young, old, whatever — and more often than not giving them their deportation orders. When we first see him on the job, driving his vintage El Camino well into the Nevada desert (rather unconvincingly portrayed by British Columbia locations), he must break the bad news to an elderly man (Mel Tuck) who does not take it well. One shootout and two dead bodies later, Noah’s glint-eyed boss Adam (Hugh Dillon) suggests he hasn’t messed up, but in fact merits a promotion. However, the encounter left our hero for the first time seriously questioning whether New Eden is a sham, and if people like his last client have credible reason beyond sheer stubbornness for resisting deportation.
His next appointment is with single mother Rachel (Sarah Lind) and her 11-year-old son Lucas (Jakob Davies), eking out a threadbare living in a farmhouse. Something about them — if only his own yearnings for family — touches him, and he tries to get their deportation at least delayed. But that action sends up a red flag for boss Adam, who already suspects Noah is in touch with an underground resistance, or is otherwise getting way too close to a secret that makes him very dangerous in the government’s eyes. The next time Noah visits Rachel and Lucas, all three must flee an armed Bureau raid. Scavenging scarce gas along the way, they barely stay ahead of Adam’s forces. For better or worse, they’re heading north towards Canada — even though the official line is it’s all radioactive wasteland up there — and are helped en route by a thin rural populace of other reluctant rebels.
The fact that manufacturing and construction ground to a halt along with all other industry years ago lets “The Humanity Bureau” get away with a non-futuristic future look. Well-chosen existing locations (coldly impersonal inside and dilapidated outside the security zones) evoke well enough a shell-shocked society whose survivors are simply surviving on the past’s dregs, a small predatory elite aside. Production designer Kathy McCoy adds some nice touches, but despite its near-inevitable echos of myriad dystopian movies, this modestly scaled enterprise wisely avoids flamboyant sets and costumes that might upstage the story.
In fact, it barely trades in fantasy, and if there’s CGI here, you’d need a guidebook to find it. There is some guns-blazing, tire-screeching action, and a certain amount of chase-suspense momentum. But apart from the scenes of coldblooded bureaucrats back in the city, there’s a surprising affability to most of “Bureau.” Striking no sentimental or comedic note too hard, it foregrounds the somewhat quarrelsome warmth between fleeing agent, mom, and son. The pacing is just brisk enough to keep that from seeming too soft an approach for the genre, and in fact the relatively small human scale really pays off when the movie finally goes for a much bigger statement at the end. It has impact — not least as a Canadian commentary on the current political climate of its brassy Southern neighbor.
In contrast to its star’s recent string of gut-busting wildman performances, “Bureau” finds him in earnest, low-key, slightly bemused form. Naturalism isn’t always Cage’s forte, but he rises to the script’s ultimately positivist sense of humanism. Lind and Davies are also on point, while Dillon not only makes a good villain, but contributes an excellent closing-credits song (“Done the Math”) performed by his long-running rock band Headstones.