Fueled by a quietly devastating lead performance from Susan Sarandon, director Maryam Keshavarz’s Viper Club tells the ripped-from-the-headlines story of a single mother fighting to rescue her war correspondent son, who’s been taken hostage by ISIS.
With her soulful saucer eyes and flinty resolve, Sarandon has always been an actress who shoots off sparks. She’s a secret weapon with an all-too-rare knack for being able to elevate underwritten roles and transcend middling material. Which is unfortunately what she has to do again here. She brings an inner fire and aching sense of maternal desperation that turns Viper Club into something richer and more layered than it would otherwise be.
Sarandon plays Helen, an exhausted, hard-shell emergency room nurse in upstate New York who’s forced to navigate thickets of maddening governmental red tape to negotiate her son Andy’s release after he’s kidnapped while reporting in Syria. The FBI coldly advises her to keep her son’s case under wraps and not to deal with his captors, who are looking for $20 million in ransom — a sum the working-class Helen clearly doesn’t have a dream of coming up with.
Frustrated by the agency’s lack of help or sympathy, Helen turns to an underground network of deep-pocketed donors led by a high-society Manhattan crusader (Edie Falco, great with what little she’s given) whose son suffered a similar fate.
Keshavarz, who co-wrote this YouTube original with Jonathan Mastro and whose previous film was 2011’s Circumstance, doesn’t play this Byzantine age-of-terror cat-and-mouse game as a thriller. Rather, it’s a subdued character study of a helpless woman tired of banging her head against bureaucratic walls. And Sarandon finds that character in small, intimate gestures instead of big, grandstanding for-your-consideration arias. Occasional flashbacks to Helen’s tight relationship with Andy as a child and an idealistic young man stall rather than propel the story forward.
Still, Viper Club is an earnest and often engaging film that’s undeniably heartfelt. It’s capital-I important and timely. But without its star’s passionate, nuanced performance, it would run the risk of being a bit generic and forgettable. At this stage in her career, Sarandon shouldn’t have to work this hard to make everyone else look good. B-
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