'Viper Club': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Not without my son.

Susan Sarandon stars in this second feature by writer-director Maryam Keshavarz ('Circumstance'), which was produced by J.C. Chandor’s CounterNarrative Films.

If there’s one thing abundantly clear in Viper Club — which, despite a similar-sounding name, has absolutely nothing to do with the Los Angeles nightspot once owned by Johnny Depp — it’s that, in the event your child is ever kidnapped in Syria, the last thing you should do is rely on the U.S. government to get them out of there.

That’s the main take-away from this heartfelt if rather generically made drama from writer-director Maryam Keshavarz, whose provocative debut feature, Circumstance, was a sleeper hit back in 2011. This more mainstream sophomore effort stars Susan Sarandon as a working-class single mom whose freelance journalist son is taken prisoner by ISIS, leaving her to do whatever it takes to try and secure his release.

But that becomes increasingly difficult for a woman with zero resources or know-how, and for whom official channels such as the FBI or the State Department seem to be taking their sweet time and fail to provide the kind of help she needs. The result is a movie that, despite an intriguing subject matter and a surprise ending that leaves you with more questions than answers, ultimately feels stronger in its message than in its execution.

Produced by J.C. Chandor's CounterNarrative Films banner, Viper Club, which also features Lola Kirke, Matt Bomer and Edie Falco, world premiered in Toronto and will hit theaters in late October via Roadside Attractions. But it may play better as one of the first YouTube Original titles to roll out on their premium streaming service early next year.

Sarandon stars as Helen, an ER nurse who expertly deals with trauma victims and grieving families, while providing ailing children at the hospital the TLC they need. But at home it’s another matter: Helen’s son Andy (Julian Morris) has been taken hostage, and since he was not an embedded reporter but a freelancer bravely chronicling the destruction of Syria on his own, there seem to be few options available to save him.

The script (by Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro) follows the ordeal through Helen’s eyes and is set mostly in the sleepy upstate New York town where she lives and works. There are snippets of footage showing Andy’s reports from the ground but this is basically an intimate story about a mother’s struggles to do what she can from afar. (The film thankfully spares us a sequence of Sarandon donning a headscarf and flying to Damascus à la Not Without My Daughter). 

What’s most frustrating for Helen is how truly ineffective powers-that-be are in her case, with an FBI agent (Patrick Breen) leading her along with talk about “procedure” but failing to do anything significant to help. When Helen finally manages to speak with a congressman in his swanky offices, he politely but firmly explains to her that since Andy voluntarily entered a warzone like Syria, he's basically on his own.

At that point, Helen decides to take matters into her own hands, meeting up with Charlotte (Edie Falco), the mother of a former hostage who introduces her to the “Viper Club”: a dark website where she can connect with fixers and middlemen in Syria. The problem is that she needs to pay a sizeable ransom — ISIS is asking for $20 million; the FBI wants her to talk down the price — and as a full-time nurse she hardly has the funds. It’s also questionable whether the plan will even work, even if a colleague of Andy's (Bomer) steps in to do everything he can to help.

Beyond the fact that the U.S. authorities appear to be fairly useless in such matters, the film also underlines how Helen’s social class prevents her from accessing the people and capital needed to bankroll Andy's liberation. A telling scene shows Charlotte and Helen meeting up with a pair of New York bigwigs in their private men’s club, but Helen is clearly out of her league and has a hard time asking or begging them for ransom money.

If Viper Club’s original setup keeps things interesting, the pedestrian and sometimes overtly sentimental filmmaking undermines what could have been a more powerful movie. Flashbacks of Helen teaching Andy to ice skate on a sun-dappled frozen pond, or watching him play hockey from the sidelines, are the sort of scenes that belong in a movie-of-the-week, while an omnipresent score by Gingger Shankar lays on the sauce way too thick at times.

Performances are fine if unexceptional, with Sarandon aptly portraying a humble upstate woman who seems to be in over her head from the get-go. She looks pretty exhausted throughout the movie, which makes sense given what Helen is dealing with — including the fact she’s been told by the FBI to hide the whole incident from the rest of the world. When, during the pic’s shocking finale, her professional and private lives come crashing together, it’s a reminder of how little control she’s had over the situation from the start, and how a mother’s love can only go so far.

Production company: CounterNarrative Films
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Matt Bomer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye, Edie Falco
Director: Maryam Keshavarz
Screenwriters: Maryam Keshavarz, Jonathan Mastro
Producers: Anna Gerb, Neal Dodson, J.C. Chandor
Executive producer: Susan Leber
Director of photography: Drew Daniels
Production designer: Javiera Varas
Costume designer: Victoria Farrell
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Composer: Gingger Shankar
Casting director: Tiffany Little Canfield
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

109 minutes