What We Do Next might as well be titled The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions, for it is perceived good intentions that lead to murder and incarceration for one character and a ticking time bomb in the careers of two others in writer-director Stephen Belber’s claustrophobic drama.
The good deed is $500 that lawyer Paul Fleming (Corey Stoll) gives to community activist Sandy James (Karen Pittman), who hands it off to Elsa Mercado (Michelle Veintimilla), a teenager she’s counseling. Over What We Do Next’s slim, 76-minute running time, Sandy will insist over and over again that she had no idea the money would go toward the purchase of a gun that Elsa would use to murder the father who was sexually abusing her, protests that ring increasingly hollow in the face of Sandy’s own behavior.
Whatever the truth is, it never came out at Elsa’s trial. Sixteen years later, when a now system-hardened Elsa is paroled, Sandy is a rising political star with an eye toward becoming New York’s mayor in the not-too-distant future. Paul is a divorced sad sack but still a successful corporate lawyer. And there is a reporter hot on the trail of the real story behind Elsa’s crime – leverage for someone with ambitions of her own but with zero experience and a prison GED.
The story of this messy trio plays out over seven chapters in a chamber piece that speaks to Belber’s other job as a playwright. So, does the dialogue, which is literate and sharp – these are people who wield words as if they were knives. Sandy and Paul insist they are on the side of right and may have even convinced themselves of that. But they will never fool Elsa who is only too aware that she did long, hard time while the people who abetted her got off scot-free and are now craven in their attempts to stay in the clear.
The film is billed as a crime drama but, really, it is more a morality play as Belber peels back the layers of Sandy and Paul’s hypocrisy. They have convinced themselves that Elsa’s anger and bitterness are misplaced but she has to listen to their self-justifications, which might enrage anyone.
Paul is a well-meaning weasel, ostensibly willing to do the right thing but when doing so might impact the life he’s built for himself, he quickly back pedals. He is divorced and freely admits to being a crap father, so not stepping up is apparently embedded in his DNA. If he’s incapable of being there for his son, what chance does Elsa have?
As for Sandy, we all know a Sandy. She is our councilperson or Congressional representative or governor or mayor. She is all about the big picture and she is dedicated to raising the lives of the underrepresented and underprivileged. She wants to help. She insists on it and backs it up with proposed legislation. The problem is that it is all abstract with her. She’s not so different from Orson Welles’ villain Harry Lime in The Third Man who looks upon people as “dots,” except while Harry is indifferent to all that humanity, Sandy is laser focused on proving how much she cares. She’s all about improving the lives of the masses.
But the masses are one thing, an individual like Elsa in all her messy humanity is something else. Sandy prefers the anonymity of all those dots to one woman she sees as an unfortunate blast from her past who could potentially stand in the way of the future she has so carefully mapped.
Belber delivers a tight, taut, and enraging drama, performed by three actors at the top of their game. It is a chilly film, the only heat coming from Elsa’s unregulated emotions and all the more powerful for that. Like Sandy, What We Do Next never loses sight of its end game. –Pam Grady