Viper Club is a surprisingly classy slow burn
As news accounts report about journalists like Jamal bin Ahmad Khashoggi being killed, and films like A Private War recount war correspondent Marie Colvin’s experiences on the front lines, the timely and compelling drama, Viper Club, depicts an American mother’s emotional turmoil on the home front.
Director and co-writer Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance) tells the (fictional) story of Helen Sterling (Susan Sarandon), whose journalist son, Andy (Julian Morris), has been kidnapped in Syria for a month. Helen has been instructed by a man at the FBI (Patrick Breen) not to discuss the situation with anyone and to “trust the process.” Moreover, he tells her, “Money cannot exchange hands. That’s illegal.” While Helen is quietly, silently despairing, she works double shifts as an ER nurse at an Oneida hospital to focus on other people’s trauma. One patient in particular, Kayla (Mattea Conforti), a young girl in a coma, keeps her busy.
Helen gets a sense of hope when her son’s friend Sheila (Sheila Vand) puts her in touch with Charlotte (Edie Falco), a woman whose own son was extracted from a similar situation. Charlotte, it is revealed, is involved with an underground network of investors who raise money for ransoms; the government officially believes that paying for hostages will create a market for terrorists.
Keshavarz, however, shrewdly does not focus much on the machinations of the Viper Club. Outside of some scenes of planning and fundraising, this film is really a character study where there is less drama in getting Proof of Life, and more in Helen advising her co-worker, Reza (Amir Malaklou), how to tell a mother that her son is dead.
Viper Club also emphasizes how Helen is haunted by dreams about her son, or has her emotions triggered by seeing Andy on video or recalling exchanges they had. As such, Helen becomes more determined to get him home by any means necessary. After meeting Charlotte, the naïve Helen also becomes tougher in her meetings with the State Department and with her FBI contact. She even gets direct when talking with a currency exchange teller who is not being very helpful.
The film gives Sarandon a prime showcase for playing tough mamma bear mode (not unlike her role in 1994’s “Safe Passage”). The actress engenders considerable empathy both as heroine and victim as her emotions ricochet from meetings that leave her alternately frustrated or hopeful. Sarandon shines in her exchanges with colleagues and patients at the hospital or in her conversations with the officials who are trying to help save her son. She projects a steeliness that masks the vulnerability and sadness that seeps through the resignation of getting nowhere slowly. This is also why she decides to take matters into her own hands.
After a slow burn of a first act, Viper Club crackles a bit when Sam (Matt Bomer) turns up to help Helen save her son. His encouraging her to go rogue, shoot a video pleading for her son’s safety, and work with the network to raise the ransom money create some action without diluting the personal story. There is even time for a tension-releasing snowball fight, in one of the film’s few relaxed moments.
Cynics may feel that Viper Club is a contrived, Lifetime TV movie dressed up as Oscar bait, but this affecting drama is classier than that. Keshavarz is balances the heavy emotions without overwhelming the characters or the audience. It’s a high-wire act that mostly works.
Viper Club opens in Philly theaters today.