‘What We Do Next’ Review: A Political Morality Play

In this three-person chamber drama, an ex-convict, a politician and a white-collar defense engage in tense conversations while pursuing their individual goals.

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By Beatrice Loayza

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“What We Do Next” is a three-person chamber drama that takes the scheming and blackmailing of political thrillers like “House of Cards” and shapes them into something like a morality play.

In seven acts, the film tracks the relationship between Elsa (Michelle Veintimilla), an ex-convict; Sandy (Karen Pittman), a New York City politician; and Paul (Corey Stoll), a white-collar defense attorney. Years ago, when Sandy was running for office, she gave Elsa some cash to presumably flee her family home, where her father was sexually abusing her. Instead, Elsa bought a gun and shot him dead.

Her lengthy prison sentence is an injustice in and of itself, the film makes clear. Like many women, Elsa is the victim of a criminal justice system that too often fails to take into account the context of abuse and survival in which such crimes take root. After being released, Elsa is left with a criminal record that has largely condemned her to low-paying work.

Elsa refuses to settle for this, challenging the authenticity of Sandy’s progressive platform in the process. She threatens to publicly reveal Sandy’s connection to the killing in exchange for a decent job, while Paul, desperate to rebrand himself and transition to anti-corruption law, inserts himself into the women’s negotiations for the sake of good public relations.

These talks unfold in various small and nondescript locations — the film was shot during quarantine — but the drama’s stripped-down, dialogue-heavy approach isn’t entirely an extension of the minimalism that defined many sets at the height of the pandemic. The writer and director Stephen Belber is best known as a playwright, which explains many of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Elegantly composed if ultimately visually bland for the big screen, “What We Do Next” is essentially a series of debates powered by the performers and Belber’s intelligent script, an intricately drawn microcosm of the country’s dynamics of power. The result doesn’t make the best use of the medium’s powers, but the chatty ride does make for good food for thought.

What We Do Next
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 17 minutes. In theaters.

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