Michelle Veintimilla, Corey Stoll and Karen Pittman in What We Do Next (Photos: WWDN Film)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Stephen Belber
STARS Corey Stoll, Karen Pittman

One character commits murder while another fights for the rights of the common people. Yet there are no clear-cut heroes or villains in What We Do Next, a pensive drama about the messy intersection between politics and personal responsibility.

Neatly divided into seven scenes (with Roman numerals helpfully but needlessly pointing out the breaks), this is a three-person drama in which the trio is comprised of a politician, a lawyer, and an ordinary citizen. It sounds like the set-up for the perennial “… all walked into a bar” joke, but this is no laughing matter.

Sixteen years ago, a young girl named Elsa Mercado (Michelle Veintimilla) shot and killed the father who was sexually abusing her. Despite being the victim, she ended up serving ample prison time, and now that she’s out, she’s hoping for some assistance from the two people whose efforts to help her back in the day didn’t quite go as planned. Sandy James (Karen Pittman), now running for New York mayor, and Paul Fleming (Corey Stoll), a frequently flailing attorney, were the two who gave her money to help her out of her dire predicament. Elsa used that money to buy the gun that killed her dad, and, despite the best intentions of Sandy and Paul, it’s the sort of sticky situation that could end a career once it’s unearthed. This infuriates Sandy, since she is genuinely trying to make a difference.

Meeting with Elsa shortly after her release, Sandy and Paul ask her to tell a small fib that might help Sandy out of this situation. Realizing that she suddenly has some measure of power, Elsa agrees to help if they can land her a high-paying job, the sort of employment that doesn’t generally go to poor and untrained people such as herself. They begrudgingly do so, but the story doesn’t end there. What follows is another crime, another bout of blackmail, and more emotionally fueled power plays between the trio.

Michelle Veintimilla and Corey Stoll

Written and directed by Stephen Belber, What We Do Next is impressive in the manner in which it keeps audience sympathies perpetually shifting between its three players. On the surface, Elsa would seem to be the least honorable of the three — there’s even a Basic Instinct-styled scene with her as Sharon Stone — but there’s the pesky fact that she’s also the most damaged, grotesquely made to suffer by a person who should have instead been protecting her. Sandy tries to remain clean, but even asking for that small fib taints her shining image. And while it appears that Paul will emerge as the most decent, he also allows some dents in his armor. Yet these aren’t bad people, just ones trying to navigate their own flaws and failings.

The dynamics at play are fascinating, as loyalties occasionally and unexpectedly shift between the three, often within the same conversation. That our own loyalties also frequently shift is a testament to the strong performances by Stoll (perhaps best known for his turns as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and the villainous Darren Cross / Yellowjacket in Ant-Man), Pittman (recently appearing as Dr. Nya Wallace in the Sex and the City follow-up And Just Like That…), and Veintimilla (Bridgit Pike / Firefly on TV’s Gotham).

Considering the grim realities of the real world, the denouement isn’t exactly a surprise. But it is nevertheless shocking, and a stark reminder that those with the most to lose will do just that.

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