'Viper Club' Lacks Bite
That 'Viper Club' opens on the heels of the assassination of a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi operatives means that the film is freighted with real-world import. The plot comes right out of the news, and the title refers to a group of war correspondents who have each other's backs during conflicts. The film even came under criticism from Diane Foley, the mother of slain reporter, James Foley, who claims that the narrative is based on her experiences.
'Viper Club' focuses on the mother of a kidnapped correspondent. Helen Sterling (Susan Sarandon) is a nurse in the emergency department of a big-city hospital. She is competent, firm, accurate and compassionate. She brings those qualities to the investigation of her missing son, Andy. She has been told by the FBI to keep quiet and to tell no one about the kidnapping. So she has no support as she waits and worries.
But the members of Viper Club continue to care for one another after they go missing, are held for ransom or killed. Eventually, she reaches out to a member who spurs her to find the $20 million needed to buy back her son -- something the U.S. State Department says it never does. From that point, she has to juggle work, American government officials and Syrians who want her son dead.
This is an important story. It should be tense. 'Argo' kind of tense. Thriller kind of tense. While the film is nerve-wracking in places, only near the very end does 'Viper Club' rise to the level of fright that viewers expect from the beginning. Scenes in the ER should be just as gripping as those of fund-raising, events in Syria, and even, mother and son disagreements.
Part of the blame rests with Maryam Keshavarz, the director and co-writer along with Jonathan Mastro. Helen's flashbacks to her son's childhood should have provided anchors in the stormy narrative. The cast, comprising good actors from Sarandon to Edie Falco to St. Louis-native Matt Bomer, might have elevated the performances above the words on the page. They do not.
'Viper Club' matters in light of current events, but its bite could have been so much sharper.