Some pacing issues occasionally upset We Need to Do Something‘s otherwise effective tone, but it remains a solid, low-ceiling genre exercise.
We Need to Do Something is both the title of the new film by Sean King O’Grady as well as the increasingly frantic entreaty of a family trapped in an impossible situation. It’s a declaration of purpose that transforms from a simple, common-sense sentiment to a desperate plea, depending on which words and syllables you put the emphasis on. Filmed quietly during the pandemic, We Need to Do Something is a chamber piece, one of those single location films transpiring entirely in one setting (Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen being one recent example). Here we are confined to a bathroom in the home of a dysfunctional family that’s taking shelter during a particularly nasty thunderstorm. Young Bobby (John James Cronin), all precocious exuberance, wants to know if there’s going to be a tornado. Sullen teenager Melissa (Sierra McCormick) won’t stop texting, and is of course annoyed at her little brother’s non-stop chatter. Put upon mother Diane (Vinessa Shaw) is trying to keep the peace and remain calm, while dad Robert (Pat Healy) nurses a thermos full of liquor and can’t stop complaining. Only minutes into their ordeal, it’s clear that something is deeply wrong here: Diane and Robert throw accusatory glances at each other and exchange vague barbs while Melissa sends cryptic texts to someone, obliquely suggesting this cataclysmic event might not be a natural occurrence. O’Grady and screenwriter Max Booth III, adapting his novella of the same name, eventually leave the confines of the bathroom for brief flashbacks that begin to fill in exactly what Melissa and her girlfriend Amy have been getting up to, but the meat of the story remains in the one location. As the storm rages on, the power blinks out, and a lighting strike sends a tree through the home’s roof, blocking the door to the bathroom. It doesn’t take long for the family to realize that they’re stuck here with no way out, no food, and no working cell phone. Then the mysterious noises begin.
Crafting one of these “closed-door” thrillers comes with a high degree of difficulty, as there are limited options for fleshing out characterizations and building suspense. Single settings might save money, but require a lot of formal ingenuity in exchange. O’Grady does an admirable job playing around with the available space, carving out chunks of the frame with the camera and divvying the family up into different configurations to subtlety comment on their relationships: Robert is frequently framed in a single, while Diane and Bobby are almost always together in a two shot. Melissa begins the film largely isolated, but gradually gets grouped alongside her mother and brother and away from her father. Booth’s screenplay expertly escalates the stakes; there’s the requisite montage of them trying to escape the room, followed by a begrudging acquiescence, then frenzied volatility as things go from bad to worse. Peeking through the cracked door, which can open a couple of inches before butting up against the tree, the family first encounters a snake, then what seems to be a dog but is revealed to be…something else entirely. Supernatural elements aside, there’s the human-scaled drama to deal with as well. Robert becomes increasingly unhinged as his liquor reserve runs dry, and he takes desperate measures to stave off the shakes. Ace character actor Healy gives one of the great lunatic performances of recent memory, building from passive-aggressive bitching to profanity-laden outbursts to something darker and far more dangerous. Shaw is equally as good in a less showy role, the patient voice of reason who must console her children while simultaneously fending off her useless husband. She’ll eventually reach the end of her tether, and Shaw gets one show-stopping moment as she processes a moment of profound grief. Indeed, the purely dramatic parts of the film work so well that the horror elements can begin to feel almost like an afterthought. Occasional flashbacks offer exposition but also disrupt the claustrophobia of the bathroom setting, interrupting and diffusing the accumulated tension. (One egregious example: immediately following Shaw’s remarkable emotional breakdown is a hallucinatory dream sequence that borders on camp, radically altering the film’s tone.) The film also ends rather abruptly, suggesting the possibility of a bigger and more elaborate climax if budgetary constraints and COVID restrictions had allowed for it. Still, this is a solid genre exercise, and deserves a wider audience than if it were to simply float away into the gaping maw of some streaming library.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.