“Viper Club” has all the right ingredients: a topical premise, ripped from the headlines; a likable lead character; and the highly relatable theme of frustration with bureaucracy. But good intentions only go so far, especially when they mask tawdry melodrama. Even the best movies push emotional buttons, but they work because viewers become wrapped up in the story. This one is so manipulative you can hear the gears grinding — until they lock up.
Susan Sarandon plays Helen, an emergency room nurse with a double life. At work, her colleagues rely on her because she’s always happy to cover an extra shift. But in private, Helen is desperate because Syrian terrorists have captured her journalist son Andrew (Julian Morris).
Functionaries at the departments of Justice and State have instructed Helen that she cannot tell anyone about what has happened, explaining that any attempt to pay a ransom herself would be illegal. Soon, however, Helen makes contact with an informal collective of journalists and their families — known as the Viper Club — who make ransom money available through shadowy back channels. As the government stalls and Helen’s frustrations grow, this club seems like the more attractive option — even if it comes with considerable risk.
Director Maryam Keshavarz, who wrote the film with Jonathan Mastro, uses a parallel scene structure to covey Helen’s divided mental state: in the E.R., she’s cool and collected; at home, she’s barely keeping it together. As if her family’s troubles aren’t enough, there’s also a subplot in which Helen rescues a little girl who has been shot, offering comfort to her worried mother (Lola Kirke).
“Viper Club” is storytelling at its most heavy-handed. Helen, for instance, engages in imaginary conversations with her missing son. While the Oscar-winning actress elevates the material — delivering a nervy, understated performance — there is not much she can do to save the film from its own tonal incongruity, as when Helen takes a break from worrying by engaging in a snowball fight.
Theatrically distributed by Roadside Attractions in partnership with YouTube, which plans to show the film on its YouTube Premium streaming platform, “Viper Club” prominently features YouTube videos as a plot point. Helen uses the service, for instance, to watch Andrew’s reporting from Syria, and those clips make for a disturbing glimpse of life in a war zone. Coupled with another scene in which Helen records a video for Andrew’s captors, the films suggests that online video is a vital, if potentially risky, communication tool. This seeming plug for YouTube as the go-to platform for social change is echoed by the portrayal of the film’s bureaucrats as inept cartoons who treat Helen with a mix of frustration and disdain. There’s a deep cynicism here. Few, if any, of the film’s characters — even the journalists — seem capable of making a difference.
Susan Sarandon attracted a lot of attention during the 2016 presidential election when she suggested that Donald Trump could be good for America — assuming he creates enough domestic chaos to jump-start a political revolution. How perfect, then, that the actress has chosen to make such an overtly political film, one in which Helen and Andrew are portrayed as collateral damage in exactly the sort of chaotic situation that she predicted. Her comments hang in the air, creating a polemical subtext that prevents the film from feeling like anything genuine is at stake.
By the time “Viper” arrives at its predictable conclusion, its hackneyed foreshadowing ensures a halfhearted ending that has all the impact of a shrug. If the movie doesn’t care about the real Helens and Andrews of the world, how can we be expected to?
R. At Regal’s Gallery Place Stadium 14 and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains strong language and some disturbing images. 109 minutes.