The poster and trailer for “Viper Club” makes it look like a hard-driving thriller about a mother (Susan Sarandon) doing anything she can to free her journalist son (Julian Morris, “Man in an Orange Shirt’) from terrorists in Syria. That’s understandable from a marketing standpoint, but “Viper Club” is actually a low-key, elegantly structured drama about the price you need to pay in order to save people’s lives or ease their suffering.
Director Maryam Keshavarz (“Circumstance”), along with co-writer Jonathan Mastro, begins her film with a title that dedicates it to conflict journalists and human aid workers in war zones, and that same earnestness has gone into the film itself, which takes it time to set up Sarandon’s lead character, Helen, who works as an emergency-room nurse.
When the film begins, Helen’s son Andy has been missing for two and a half months. She is meeting with the FBI and trying to go through official channels to free Andy, and the Feds have told her not to speak about her son to anyone. This adds to the pressure at her very demanding job, where none of her co-workers know what Helen is dealing with. The so-called “viper club” of the title is a group of freelance journalists who share information about the war zones they are covering, and Helen has to eventually deal with them when she keeps getting nowhere with her government contacts.
If another actor were playing Helen, there might be a lot more tension and fear and barely suppressed dramatics, but Sarandon has built her career on an image of laid-back, “I can handle anything” toughness, and Keshavarz has tailored this role so that it plays to all of Sarandon’s strengths, particularly in her extensive scenes at the hospital. Sarandon is a good listener on screen, and that works very well here because so many of her scenes involve her listening to what someone is telling her and taking it in.
Sarandon has always been very believable as someone who works for a living at a rough job where she needs to roll with the punches, and Keshavarz expertly dramatizes the two sides of this story so that Helen’s hospital life and her life on the outside, where she is trying to free her son, increasingly start to correspond and comment on each other.
There is a carefulness to the way the narrative of “Viper Club” is set up, so that certain elements that are planted in the first hour start to pay off in the second. At one point we see Helen staring longingly up at the ceiling of an ornate church, and so we’re led to wonder if she is religious or once had some kind of religious faith. It’s just a moment that isn’t lingered over, but we have been prepared for the later sequence where Helen finally does go to church to pray for her son. And if we know that Sarandon herself is a lapsed Catholic — she has spoken about this in interviews for many years — this scene has an extra resonance.
Keshavarz exhibits the same layered sort of sensitivity when it comes to the scenes that Helen shares with Charlotte (Edie Falco), a very wealthy woman who got her own son out of captivity by raising large amounts of money. “Can I ask you a personal question?” Charlotte says as she sits with Helen at a fancy restaurant, and Sarandon’s Helen takes a definite and weighty pause before answering, “Sure.” The impact of that pause is an example of the wariness of both Sarandon herself as a performer and Keshavarz as a director.
There are times in “Viper Club” when the same patience that Keshavarz brings to so many of the scenes can feel slightly dawdling. It’s admirable in many ways that this movie refuses to behave as a conventional thriller, but there are moments when a little conventional dramatic tightening might have put the story over in a more gripping way.
“Viper Club” is partly about how Helen has to stop being so guarded and show her emotions when she is forced to make a video directly addressing the terrorists who are holding her son. The full impact of this open expression of emotion and what it costs Helen doesn’t quite come across the way it needs to or could, but the ending is so gracefully shaped and delivered that this can be forgiven. This is a slow-burning movie, but its stealth and intelligence eventually packs an emotional punch.