TIFF18: Viper Club

Helen’s son is a war photographer who’s been missing in the middle east for the past several weeks, perhaps months. Well, not so much missing as kidnapped and held for ransom.

The CIA and FBI are ‘helping’ Helen by telling her to keep this a secret, but a heart-pounding, nausea-inducing secret like this can really make triggers out of  literally everything and anything, and it’s hard to keep her ER colleagues in the dark when they know her so well.

The U.S. government doesn’t pay ransoms, and keeps reminding her it’s illegal for her to do it also. Not that she has any money. Selling her house would provide only a fraction of the demanded sum, and a real estate agent grimly informs her it’s a tear-down anyway. With few options and increasingly hostile communications from the kidnappers, Helen (Susan Sarandon) turns to the only person who can possibly help MV5BNjY5N2I2N2MtYmI0My00OGJiLTkwOTQtYWVlN2FlYTgwMGUxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg3Mzc4MDQ@._V1_her – Charlotte, the mother of another kidnapped journalist who was successful in getting her son returned home. Off the record, Charlotte (Edie Falco) fund-raised the ransom among her wealthy friends and had someone walk it across the border for her in order to evade detection. They’re planning the same for Helen’s son, with a friend and colleague of his, Sam (Matt Bomer) willing to make the actual transaction. Helen can scarcely believe her son might actually come home, and isn’t sure what kind of broken man he’ll be if he does. But her focus remains on getting the work done, all of it underground, away from the unhelpful but watchful eyes of government agencies.

Director Maryam Keshavarz makes some choices that make the movie feel a little cold and distant. While I believe whole-heartedly that Helen was committed to getting her son back, we never see her cry, we never see her crack. Yes,  she’s hardened by her ER nursing, but she’s got a soft spot or two, so why no cracks in the facade? And why only drop us in on the action when the son’s been missing for several months? I feel we miss a vital part of the story by omitting Helen’s first contact with the kidnappers, or the moment she realizes she hasn’t heard from her son in too long a time. Instead we only meet her when she’s navigating bureaucracy, which is a bit dry and made me feel removed from any urgency.

There might be a bit of an awards push to get Sarandon a nomination but I’d be fine if it didn’t amount to anything. The story is upsetting but not nearly moving enough. It feels diluted. Viper Club delivers a small still where its title promised a deadly bite.

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