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VIPER CLUB (2018) review

November 2, 2018

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written by: Maryam Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro
produced by: J.C. Chandor, Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb
directed by: Maryam Keshavarz
rated: R (for language and some disturbing images)
runtime: 109 min.
U.S. release date: October 26, 2018 (limited) and November 2, 2018 (AMC River East & Landmark Century Centre, Chicago, IL)

 

The movie is called “Viper Club” and it stars Oscar winner Susan Sarandon and just from the title it sounds like she should be playing a hard-nosed, world-weary owner of a roadside biker bar (maybe because it brings to mind the legendary Los Angeles nightclub Viper Room), someone who’s turned a blind eye to the shady dealings that’s been going on around her for years until one day she’s forced to get involved when something irreversible happens. Sorry, this is not that movie, although Sarandon is playing a hardened character, whose currently quite weary. “Viper Club” aims to delve into some heavy subject matter, as director Maryam Keshavarz (who co-wrote the screenplay with examines a parent’s frustration and helplessness in a proof-of-life drama that’s supposedly inspired by an amalgam of true events which a select number of viewers will unfortunately find they can relate to. 

Helen Sterling (Sarandon) is a veteran emergency room nurse in New York dealing with the capture of her freelance journalist son, Andy (Julian Morris), whose been abducted by an unnamed terrorist group in an unnamed region of the Middle East. We know about as much as Helen does about where her son is and why. She tries to distracts herself with her job where an Iranian doctor (Amir Malaklou) and her supervisor (Adepero Oduye “Pariah”) rely on her to remain focused and attentive, especially during the Christmas holiday season. Taking care of people in near-death or traumatic situations is something concrete she can do, it’s right there in front of her eyes, unlike her son. Helen hopes the government officials she’s been in touch with (both CIA and FBI) can work swiftly on her behalf, but that’s not a speed they’re accustomed to and all they seem to do is give her the same scripted answers and emphasize that paying the twenty million ransom that was posted several weeks ago out of her own pocket is illegal – not that she could come up with that kind of money.

 

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The only other person who knows about the ransom, besides the authorities, is Andy’s ex-girlfriend, Sheila (Sheila Ward), a journalist as well who informs Helen of an organization called the Viper Club, an online hub offering monetary and informational support for journalists and people who need assistance in Helen’s situation. Unsure at first, but eventually Helen meets up with Charlotte (Edie Falco), an enigmatic New York socialite who worked with this network to successfully seek the release of her own son. Looking at all her options and pooling as many resources as possible, Helen also meets up with Sam (Matt Bomer), a close friend of Andy’s who believes going public is the best way to raise awareness of her needs. Disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s inability to act, Helen begins to invest in this covert group hoping that her son would be kept safe, if not released.

Sarandon is typically good here, but she’s in a movie that’s too slow, one that lacks the urgent tone its story desperately needs.  It’s the story that feels unfocused and tonally off. Not enough time is spent establishing a connection (even a lackthereof would be helpful) between Helen and her adult son. We see them together in a couple flashbacks, but it’s unclear what kind of bond the two have. There’s also a parallel story that is weaved throughout, involving a young mother at Helen’s job, who has to make a crucial decision about the life of her comatose daughter at the hospital. This subplot goes from depressing to confounding, thanks to the baffling characterization of the young mother and the inane dialogue she’s given, not to mention the poor choices the actress (Lola Kirke) makes. These aspects add up to a viewing experience that feels like it misses its overall potential.

 

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Keshavarz’s depiction of a captured journalist and his desperate mother is not only missing an anxiety and urgency, but it’s also come under some criticism by Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, an American journalist like the one in this movie who wound up slain back in 2014, a tragedy which is no doubt still quite raw. The director maintains the story here is an amalgam of truths, but it may be too close to home or coincidental for some. 

Co-produced by CounterNarrative Films, which is run by J.C. Chandor (“All is Lost”, “Margin Call”)  “Viper Club” made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival a couple months back and will see a short theatrical run courtesy of Roadside Attractions before is released online in January as one of the first YouTube Original titles to roll out under their premium streaming service. Maybe that’s a better release model for a film that mostly feels like something you’d find on the Lifetime Channel, what with its repetitive flashbacks to Andy as a child set to a heavy-handed manipulative score from Gingger Shankar.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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