Viper Club (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Viper Club tells a timely story, borne from real-life events (even though the filmmakers deny this fact), which feels ripped from today’s headlines.
Though a polarizing figure as of late, Susan Sarandon has some powerful moments in the film which remind us why she is such a great actor.
An ambitious concept for a film, and a centerpiece to the newly revamped YouTube Premium OTT service.
Ultimately, it’s not very good. Viper Club is too slow, meandering, and puzzling to be effective as a cohesive film.
Disavowed by Diane Foley, the mother of journalist James Foley, Viper Club is reportedly not about her son, despite mirroring much of his family’s story throughout the film. That is, um, really bizarre. Is that coincidence, then?
Not nearly as insightful and topical as it thinks it is, Viper Club takes a strong Susan Sarandon performance and squanders it for a story that is, quite frankly, hard to believe.
Maryam Keshavarz’s first film since 2011’s award-winning drama Circumstance, arrives in theaters amid a bizarre wave of controversy.
Starring Susan Sarandon as Helen Sterling, the single mother of Andy (Julian Morris), a freelance journalist who has been kidnapped by Syrian extremists and held for a ransom, Viper Club mirrors the story of James Foley, an investigative journalist who found himself in a similar circumstance in 2014.
As a matter of fact, much of Andy and Helen’s story is the story of Foley and his mother, Diane, yet Keshavarz has denied the film is solely about him. And as one scratches their head, trying to figure out a movie can mirror so many details of someone’s life, but not be about that individual, even when Diane Foley and Keshavarz met and talked extensively during the making of the film, perhaps Diane’s disavowing of the film, even after she was given a private screening of Viper Club, plays a role in the denial.
Setting all of that aside for a moment, Viper Club tries very, very hard to be topical, emotional, and insightful. Sarandon is close to the vest emotionally, and Helen has to be: She is under gag order by the federal government when it comes to discussing Andy’s situation with anyone she knows. A few people do know Andy’s plight; namely, Sheila (Sheila Vand), his ex-girlfriend and colleague, and Sam (Matt Bomer), a photojournalist and Andy’s best friend.
Receiving outlandish text messages and ransom requests, Helen takes private meetings with FBI personnel and government officials, only to have conversations often abruptly end in some variation of “I’m sorry Mrs. Sterling, that’s classified.” When a senator indicates “we are doing everything we can,” and implies that Andy’s situation is his own fault, Helen has heard enough and begins considering paying the ransom and bringing her son back home.
You can feel Keshavarz, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Mastro, wants this to scream from the rooftops. At times, Sarandon’s conviction and resolve are powerful – moments where she goes toe-to-toe with secretive FBI agents and makes a personal connection to a young girl in the ICU, in a coma from a shooting, remind us just how great an actor she can be.
The problems come in other moments, where Viper Club introduces a couple of subplots which are poorly executed and the overall churn of the story feels almost unbearably slow. At 109 minutes, the film feels far, far longer than it actually is.
The titular “club” consists of a hidden group of financiers and movers and shakers who fund operations to bring hostages home when the government fails to move quickly, or appear unable or unwilling to take immediate action. Helen is put in contact with Charlotte (Edie Falco), whose son was brought home when a ransom was paid to an extremist organization, solely from money raised through private donors. Routing money through international law firms and shell companies, Andy tells Helen that no one thinks to look at law firms and the money can pass through without a trace.
Naturally, this creates a dilemma of conscience for Helen. Unfortunately, Viper Club never makes us really care about this clandestine underworld. In one particular scene, Charlotte pumps up Helen to meet with two seedy, leering businessmen, and when Helen underwhelms, Charlotte becomes a master negotiator, with the skill and ability to draw money. In another scene, a virtual call center is in play at Charlotte’s mansion, where cell phones are ringing one after the other, and people are announcing dollar amounts like you would hear in a telethon call center.
Point being: Even if true, this is simply really hard to believe. If the operation is so secretive, who is everyone making these calls? Plus, Helen and Andy’s plight becomes trivial when we hear someone announce: “You guys, they just pledged $800,000!!!!”
Perhaps it is the credibility issues that Diane Foley objected to. Maybe it is the outright cribbing of her son’s story, while everyone involved in Viper Club denies it is even about him in the first place.
When Helen bonds with that child in the ER, Keshavarz’s movie slips into heavy-handedness and obviousness. We understand where all of this is going, including a final sequence that may seem brave and bold on the surface, but again mirrors real-life events it claims to not be replicating whatsoever.
One of the first films under the banner of YouTube Originals, Viper Club will premiere on the YouTube Premium service in early January, and, sadly, in the grand scheme of things, that is probably where this movie belongs.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Matt Bomer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye, Edie Falco, Amir Malaklou, Mattea Conforti.
Director: Maryam Keshavarz
Written by: Maryam Keshavarz, Jonathan Mastro
Release Date: October 26, 2018
YouTube Premium/Roadside Attractions