As ER nurse Helen Sterling, Susan Sarandon has to be cagey with her emotions, never giving in to false hope or personal connection to the daily onslaught of the dead and the dying, and those who survive them.
A nurse with decades of experience, she might be the right one to counsel the green young Iranian doctor (Amir Malaklou) on how to tell parents “the worst thing they will ever hear,” that their child has died. Another parent she’s just as blunt with her words of comfort.
“You can keep her on the respirator as long as you’d like.”
But as tough as that exterior is, as many times as she says “I can handle it,” Helen’s handling of her big secret is lacking, and at the heart of the problematic drama titled “Viper Club.”
Her son, a freelance Youtube war correspondent (Julian Morris), was taken hostage in the Syrian civil war. The terrorists who have him have her number. They want $20 million for her boy. They text her with their demands.
And the F.B.I. (Patrick Breen) and State Department (Damien Young) experts she confers with — separately, as in “Don’t you guys talk to each other?” — have told her to keep this a secret, a way of bargaining with and winning Andy “the infidel’s” release.
Director and co-writer Maryam Keshavarz (“Circumstance”) struggles to gin up the drama in the Byzantine hostage half of the story while letting the hospital half of the tale take it over. And casting Edie Falco, the Once and Future “Nurse Jackie,” as a wealthy woman who got her son freed and promises Helen she can help her do the same, just reminds us of how much more convincing an actress who had years to perfect her stethoscope technique was in this guise than the Oscar winning Sarandon.
Helen sees Andy everywhere; hallucinating him here, remembering him in flashbacks there. How he grew up with a British accent is anybody’s guess.
Helen’s solitary life makes it easy for her to lie when colleagues ask, “What’s going on with you?” She lies to get days off to meet with the rich go-between, a woman who insists she did not do what is against U.S. law in such situations and pay ransom to free her own son. It’s all part of the class privilege she wears like her designer winter coats, the “tea service” with champagne she orders for them on their first meeting.
Matt Bomer plays one of Andy’s colleagues, the visible face of what conflict reporters call the “Viper Club,” shared group-sourced online information and collective experience — how-to help for everything from hiring a local guide to the safest places to eat or room in any given combat zone.
And their advice? “The F.B.I.” is a bunch of “idiots.” It’s in their interest to keep a kidnapping overseas quiet. When Mr. State Dept. mutters about keeping “politics” out of this, Helen doesn’t get that he’s politicized the kidnapping already by covering it up.
“It’s not politics! It’s my son!”
Even these moments, with Helen trying to get “urgency” into officialdom’s vocabulary, getting her back up to try and move the ball down the field, work out something to free her boy, have a muted, can’t-show-emotions/ can’t-lose-my-cool feel.
Yes, we want that and I’d argue that the movie needs it. But Helen isn’t wired/scripted/played that way. Thus, “Viper Club” is too muted to come off.
This Youtube financed release just muddles through far too much of its running time, setting up a parallel story about a young gunshot victim Helen allows herself to give extra attention to, even though her situation is as hopeless looking as Andy’s.
Sarandon is always a compelling presence, but too much is left unsaid and unplayed here to pull us in. “Viper Club” needed action, suspense, more pathos and forward motion. She tries to do it all with her eyes, and it’s not enough.
Some have used the film’s finishing touch as an excuse to excuse the tedium that precedes it. They find film’s finale “surprising.” Really?
MPAA Rating: R for language and some disturbing images
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Matt Bomer, Edie Falco
Running time: 1:49