Both an arthouse model of an old-school Lifetime movie and an unexpectedly tender take on A-list social-issue melodramas, Maryam Keshavarz’s Viper Club starts with Susan Sarandon’s frazzled, desperate mother looking directly into the camera. Or rather, “a” camera — one being held by folks out of frame, coaching her on how to properly address terrorists. She’s filming a ransom video to the men who have her grown son. He’s a war videographer, documenting the ongoing civil war in Syria; he’s also been taken hostage. So she tells them that they’re going to get everything she has, the Feds have told her not to exchange money but she’s going to anyway, just please don’t hurt him. The voices offscreen offer suggestions. They’ve done this before. The woman just stares straight ahead. She looks like she’s seconds away from falling apart.
This is the usually the kicking-off point for a Not Without My Daughter-style potboiler, in which Sarandon’s character — her name is Helen, she’s an experienced E.R. nurse — would travel to Syria herself and turn into a maternal avenging angel. Instead, we witness her go through the daily grind at work, and get frustrated with the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. agents who keep throwing phrases like “there’s a protocol” or “with terrorists, we find that it’s better to go slowly” at her. Occasionally, we see Helen argue with her M.I.A. boy, Andy (Julian Morris) in imaginary, one-sided conversations. Mostly, we watch her worry. “This isn’t politics — it’s my son!” she says early on. You can’t accuse the movie of burying the lede.
So when Andy’s girlfriend (Sheila Vand) passes her the number of someone belonging to a clandestine collective known as the Viper Club (“I didn’t come up with the name,” the young woman says, shrugging), the helpless Helen calls. Soon, she finds herself face to face with another mom, played with sympathy and steely reserve by Edie Falco, who says she can help. Her son had once been taken as well, and now he’s safe, sound and teaching out west. Plus one of Andy’s best friends and fellow hot-zone reporters, Sam (Matt Bomer), is a member as well. They lead her through a labyrinth of less-than-legal avenues, from making that unsanctioned ransom tape to hitting up former Ivy Leaguer mucky mucks for financial support. Bureaucratic red tape gets bypassed. Meanwhile, days pass and Andy is still M.I.A. ….
Every time you think Viper Club is going to go full star vehicle or switch to a finger-pointing indictment on American involvement (or lack thereof) in foreign lands, the movie has a way of making a hard left into unexpectedly closer-to-home territory. Rage, not righteousness, is the mode here, but the muted, disbelieving, draining kind. Simple answers aren’t on the menu. No happy endings are guaranteed. As for Sarandon, she’s not treating this role as a showcase for handwringing or how-low-can-you-go emoting. It’s a steady, solid, grounded performance, one that’s a ballast for the movie-matriarchal frustration and geopolitical timeliness. She’s a first-rate underplayer when she wants to be.
And yet, even as it continually strays off the conventional path of easy catharsis, the movie has a habit of wandering into bathos territory or tripping over its good character-study intentions. Keshavarz’s 2011 debut Circumstance was a beautiful, sometimes brutal look at two women in love and bumping up against Iran’s socially oppressive, fundamentalist-friendly landscape — you sensed she was not only an extremely talented filmmaker but one that could balance small moments with big statements. Viper Club isn’t quite up to that level; it’s all haunting grace notes or hamfisted death grips with little in between. There’s just enough to make the film a cut above your average headline-driven drama and not quite enough to shoot it into the stratosphere.