An empathetic turn by Susan Sarandon as an anxious mother whose journalist son is being held hostage by overseas extremists is enough to hold together “Viper Club.” But it’s not quite enough to render this subject as compelling as it should be; the intimacy of the protagonist’s viewpoint also results in an isolated and monotonously apolitical look at a narrow civilian aspect of turbulent global politics.
YouTube Originals and Roadside Attractions plans a U.S. theatrical release on Oct. 26, and an awards campaign for the star could stir some interest. Yet this earnest drama, a second narrative feature for director/co-scribe Maryam Keshavarz (following 2011’s Iran-set “Circumstance”) feels like it would be most at home on the small screen.
Helen Sterling (Susan Sarandon) is a longtime ER nurse at an upstate New York hospital. She’s such a pro that she can handle her everyday duties and even counsel a new resident doctor (Amir Malaklou) on how to break the worst possible news to families — without letting anyone know she’s under terrible stress: Her only child, Andy (Julian Morris), a freelance journalist specializing in war-zone coverage, has been kidnapped by extremists in Syria and is being held for ransom.
Helen has been in constant contact with the U.S. government for three months now over negotiations of his release, but progress has been seemingly nonexistent. Her FBI contact (Patrick Breen) insists she not go public with the issue, though playing by the rules isn’t moving things forward. When she goes to the State Department, they’re no more helpful — Andy being neither military personnel or an employee of a major news agency, his rescue seems low-priority — and worse, they don’t even seem aware of what the FBI is or isn’t doing.
Tipped to the existence of a secret website (the “Club” of the title) where freelancers like Andy can post or ask for crucial intel, she sees horrific videos he’s posted there, including a school bombing he barely survived. She gains contacts including his colleagues Sam (Matt Bomer) and Sheila (Sheila Vand), as well as wealthy activist Charlotte (Edie Falco). The latter’s son was also a hostage, and she now helps orchestrate hostage negotiations through non-official channels. These people all tell Helen the same thing: Governments lie when they say they never pay ransoms, and the only way Andy — who’s at high risk of torture or execution — will be freed is if a sum is settled upon, the money raised and smuggled to his captors.
Though intelligent and persistent, Helen has slim means, no high-powered friends and little comprehension of how things work, either in the U.S. or overseas. Thus she’s mostly a pained, frustrated bystander to a life-or-death situation whose outcome she can do little to influence.
Sarandon is just the right actress to fill the character’s many private, worrisome moments with rich emotion, but “Viper Club” is far too full of those moments. There’s more going on to hold viewers’ attention at her place of work, where she deals with various emergencies and other issues. She develops a sort of mentoring friendship with the Iranian staffer played by Malaklou; she supports a young mother (Lola Kirke) whose daughter is comatose; and she maintains peace with the demanding supervisor (Adepero Oduye) she’s stymied from informing about her own ongoing crisis.
Because these hospital mini-dramas are more immediate and explicable than the hostage negotiations, they tend to hijack the film. Flashbacks to Helen’s close but somewhat argumentative relationship with her missing son give us limited insight. But in truth we don’t learn as much about her nonworking life as we ought to, given that her perspective comprises pretty much the entire film. Sarandon can do only so much to fill in the blanks, as warm and assured as her low-key performance is.
“Viper Club” impresses in dealing viewers (and its heroine) a tough, uncompromising resolution. Still, the suspense that should have heightened the film’s impact is lacking due to the slowly paced, inward-looking drama. Despite the good performances and thoughtful assembly (including Drew Daniels’ largely hand-held camerawork and a violin-driven score by Gingger Shankar), there’s a degree of tedium to sharing Helen’s plight. She’s in a highly dramatic situation that the film never quite captures.