Having proven itself an enduring foundational fixture for comedy and feel-good fare, it’s perhaps high time that horror reclaims the narrative potential of the incompatible family unit trope. Ari Aster proclaimed as much a few years back with his breakout “Hereditary,” and now Sean King O’Grady marches to the same tune with his own feature debut, “We Need to Do Something”—a trapped-in-place plunge into delirium propelled by semi-sinister seriocomedy, dulled by slight dramatic misalignment and energized by one memorably effective jump-scare. When our characters turn the desperate straining to bust open a front door that won’t budge into a family affair, you realize they’re working together to get the hell away from each other as much as to get the hell out.
A tornado is already wreaking havoc by the time this family of four we’ll follow over 100 or so minutes takes shelter inside a windowless bathroom with nothing but their phones, time and bubbling tensions. They have names, but you’re more apt to remember them by the outwardly exaggerated archetypes they represent (and perhaps how likely each one is to lose their marbles first): There’s standoffish, pink-haired big sister Melissa (Sierra McCormick); chirpy little brother Bobby (John James Cronin); protective, cardigan-wearing mom Diane (Vinessa Shaw); and magma-hot-tempered dad Robert (Pat Healy), clearly the eye of the figurative storm swirling over this family as a literal one is heard turning the house around them into splinters. We’re only seeing, hearing, understanding as much as the family does, and O’Grady manages to carve out natural tension early on by refusing to pinpoint just how bad the situation is outside—thus zeroing us in on every horrific escalation inside as the family is left to accomplish nothing but sit and wait...sit and wait...sit and wait…eventually, sitting and waiting will turn into ripping and tearing.
It doesn’t matter much that “We Need to Do Something” extends the (near) totality of its aesthetically limited perspective to our understanding of this family’s history. We’re expected to know why Diane keeps quickly ignoring the calls she’s getting as Robert raises an eyebrow, and these kids are of prime squabbling age. What’s a little less clear in the movie’s first half is whether O’Grady and screenwriter Max Booth III (adapting his own novella) are more interested in deconstructing their characters or conjuring cheeky terror out of their claustrophobic setting.
There are hints that the latter priority is the true one, including a well-executed confrontation with a persistent rattlesnake, a moderately effective dry wit (“Don’t most things die with their tongues ripped out?”) and one scene that sees the director masterfully jolting a moment of levity into one of inexplicable bone-chilling horror. The jump-scare does more than electrify the senses; it opens up a new avenue for close encounters of the psychological kind, and “We Need to Do Something” grabs our hand and pulls us along via flashbacks centered on Melissa’s budding relationship with a peer, Amy (Lisette Alexis), in a timeline which unfolded presumably not long before the current-day purgatory.
These bits largely confuse more than they clarify, however, and even though a touch of black magic plays some part in “We Need to Do Something” charting new territory of guilt and regret as things turn increasingly violent in the present-day circumstances, the movie’s deployment of those themes is regrettably half-hearted. It’s hard not to think that if the drama of “We Need to Do Something” retained its ambiguity and committed fully to its limited perspective, those broad strokes would organically draw up more thoughtful ruminations about losing yourself in the face of isolated terror—especially given, you know, everything about our current reality.
Still, there’s enough gusto in the film’s final third that its parallel dramatic and horrific lines finally intersect at an appropriately blunt, bleak point. McCormick suffuses her performance with a volatility that doesn’t know rage from desperation (this is a compliment) and Healy increasingly resembles a zombified presence who continues to insist on having his way even after blood has been spilled. By the time the nastiness reaches an imaginatively psychedelic and neon-tinged apotheosis, O’Grady’s movie has done what it can to overcome its tonal imbalance and become something which feels like a direct response to schmaltzier depictions of human spirit that locate salvation amid the chaos of, say, a Roland Emmerich-type joint. What O’Grady finally comes to suggest in “We Need to Do Something” is that just because you have all the time in the world (and at the potential end of it) to work through your lingering problems doesn’t mean you will.
"We Need to Do Something" is not rated. It's now available on VOD platforms.
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Vinessa Shaw, Pat Healy, Lisette Alexis
Directed by Sean King O'Grady
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