The opioid epidemic has provided some interesting grist for the moviemaking mill, as it’s introduced elements of organized crime into communities where that was not previously much of a factor. Piling on to the trend comes “Inherit the Viper,” which explores elements of addiction, exploitation, and violence in the kind of Midwestern small town that has long been excluded from supposed economic booms.
This first feature for director Anthony Jerjen and screenwriter Andrew Crabtree doesn’t arrive at anything truly memorable as either drama or thriller, but still provides a reasonably engrossing, well-crafted mix of both. Josh Hartnett plays the eldest among siblings whose drug-trade profit has been the ruination of many another local family. The Lionsgate release gets a limited theatrical release on Jan. 10, simultaneous with digital and on-demand launch.
“Can’t nobody predict the future, you know?” are the first words audiences hear, spoken by an offscreen character whose future actually is as predictable as it is short. Moments later she’ll be found dead in a bar restroom, her body having given up the battle after lengthy substance abuse. But that’s not until she’s scored one last dose of oxy from Josie Conley (Margarita Levieva from “The Deuce”), who’s impatiently listened to her client’s take of the workplace injury that led to painkiller dependence that led to this last, fatal high.
Though she carefully removes any incriminating evidence from the scene, Josie doesn’t feel personally responsible for that death, or any other harm done. When asked if she and her siblings are any different from the late father whose dealing landed him in jail, and drove their mother away long ago, she shrugs, “We’re doing what we need to do to get by.” But others in town feel the Conleys are a predatory pestilence, including the aforementioned woman’s furious, grieving husband (Brad William Henke), and Josie’s own ex, Sheriff Knox (Dash Mihok).
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Though he reluctantly participates in the “family business,” brother Kip Conley (Hartnett) has a toehold on the straight-and-narrow via his lumberyard job, as well as pregnant hairdresser girlfriend Eve (Valorie Curry). He’d rather they exit the business before it’s too late, and is particularly eager to keep youngest sibling Boots (Owen Teague) from going down the same criminal path.
But immature, ignorant Boots is all too eager to prove he’s ready for big-league dealing. Of course, such bravado promptly leads to an armed face-off from which he’s lucky to emerge alive. That and other violent incidents should make it clear to any reasonable observer that the time to get the hell out of opioids is now. But Jodie, addicted to power and money rather than drugs, may no longer be within the reach of reason.
“Viper” just touches the 78-minute mark when final credits roll. You certainly can’t accuse it of excess storytelling fat, but there’s such a thing as being too lean. An atmospheric, character-driven suspense piece like this could’ve used a bit more time to let tension and rooting interest build. What’s here is well-acted by a solid cast (also including Bruce Dern as the leads’ bar-owning, disapproving maternal grandfather), dramatically effective, and authentic-enough feeling. But it also feels a tad rushed, with no space to fill out the dimensions of tragic grandeur fleetingly gestured toward here, or even to make the Conleys’ pained family past more than a hasty verbal footnote.
Nonetheless, it’s an impressive if modest endeavor, all the more so when you realize that the Ohio-set tale was shot credibly around Birmingham, Ala. There’s an appropriately dark, furtive, largely nocturnal look to Nicholas Wiesnet’s widescreen lensing, while production designer Tracy Dishman lends a nice sense of detail to the downwardly mobile interiors, and a strong score by Patrick Kirst adds non-formulaic edginess.