'Inherit the Viper': Film Review

Inherit the Viper - Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Josh Hartnett plays the eldest member of a trio of drug-dealing siblings in Anthony Jerjen's drama set in opioid-plagued Appalachia.

There's no doubt that the current opioid crisis represents a national calamity of devastating proportions. It's inevitable, then, that the situation has become rife for dramatization, and you can feel the seriousness behind the new crime drama representing the feature debuts of director Anthony Jerjen and screenwriter Andrew Crabtree. Unfortunately, for all its admirable intentions and the terrific performances by its talented ensemble, Inherit the Viper fails to have any genuine impact. Neither weighty enough to satisfyingly explore its themes nor sufficiently suspenseful to work as a straightforward thriller, the film proves dramatically inert.

Set in the sort of all-too-common small Ohio town (convincingly doubled by Birmingham, Alabama) that has become afflicted by economic distress and widespread addiction, the story revolves around the Conley clan, composed of siblings Kip (Josh Hartnett, Penny Dreadful), Josie (Margarita Levieva, The Deuce) and Boots (Owen Teague, the It films). Their late father, a career criminal, has bestowed to them an ominous legacy.  

Josie and Kip have a thriving business in dealing painkillers to the physically and emotionally ailing members of their community. Josie has clearly developed a casual indifference to the suffering caused by their product, as evidenced by her callous reaction to coming upon the lifeless body of one her customers who's suffered an overdose in a tavern bathroom; she makes sure to retrieve the dead woman's drugs so she can resell them. Kip, a military veteran whose girlfriend is newly pregnant, has begun to suffer a crisis of conscience and wants to go straight, even while their younger brother, Boots, proves eager to enter the family business.

Kip's efforts to go straight, and Boots' ill-considered attempt to set up an illicit deal for himself form the heart of the story. Despite the promising setup, however, the film never achieves any narrative momentum; even its frequent violent episodes barely make an impression. That may be partly due to cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet's oppressively dark visuals (most of the story takes place at night), which tend to produce an unnecessarily somnolent effect. Another problem is the sluggish pacing that makes Netflix's similarly styled Ozark seem frenetic by comparison. And such subplots as Josie's past relationship with the local sheriff (Dash Mihok, Ray Donovan), who knows full well what she and her siblings are up to, don't achieve much payoff.  

It's a shame, because the elements are there, including such colorful supporting characters as a shady bar owner, entertainingly played by Bruce Dern (the veteran actor seems to be fully embracing the old codger phase of his career), who frequently comments on the proceedings via philosophical aphorisms and metaphors. Crabtree's screenplay is indeed strongest in terms of character definition, and the actors make the most of it. Hartnett does his best work in years as the emotionally conflicted Kip; Levieva is chilling in her portrayal of the hard-boiled Josie and Teague brings a hot-wire intensity to the criminally ambitious Boots, who gets in far over his head. Among the supporting players also making vivid if brief impressions are Chandler Riggs (The Walking Dead) and Brad William Henke (Orange Is the New Black). But their laudable efforts are not enough to prevent Inherit the Viper from being as numbing as the drugs the Conley family peddles.

Production companies: Barry Films, Tycor International Film Company
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Margarita Levieva, Owen Teague, Valorie Curry, Chandler Riggs, Brad William Henke, Tara Buck, Dash Mihok, Bruce Dern
Director: Anthony Jerjen
Screenwriter: Andrew Crabtree
Producers: Michel Merkt, Benito Mueller
Executive producers: Wolfgang Mueller, Kateryna Merkt, Anthony Jerjen
Director of photography: Nicholas Wiesnet
Production designer: Tracy Dishman
Editors: Kiran Pallegadda, Dominic LaPerriere
Composer: Patrick Kirst
Costume designer: Emily Batson
Casting: Orly Kate Sitowitz

Rated R, 85 minutes