Susan Sarandon portrays a mother whose video-journalist son has been taken captive by terrorists in war-ravaged Syria. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
In “Viper Club,” Helen Sterling (Susan Sarandon) is a woman under soul-crushing stress. And yet on the outside she gives no sign of it.
Her son Andy (Julian Morris), a seasoned independent video journalist, has been taken captive by terrorists in war-torn Syria. She fears for his life every waking moment. She yearns for word of his condition. None is forthcoming.
She keeps her pain hidden. Government functionaries tell her Andy’s case is a delicate matter and must be handled with caution according to established policy, and no publicity. She’s advised not to rock the boat by going public.
So she does her job. She’s an emergency-room nurse in a New York state hospital, and a good one: strong, compassionate. Inside, she’s despairing, raging. Outside, she’s calm, collected.
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She does not confide in her co-workers. Her suffering is solitary.
She’s walking an emotional tightrope. Sarandon walks it with no missteps. It’s a remarkable performance.
And a quiet one. This is a movie of muted conversations between Helen and government bureaucrats and co-workers, and more significantly with members of the so-called Viper Club, a little-known group of activists who have experience with arranging ransoms for hostages like Andy. Her main contact is with a wealthy woman named Charlotte (Edie Falco), whose own son was captured and later successfully ransomed.
Most significantly, she has conversations with Andy himself — in dreams, in flashbacks.
The picture never leaves the U.S., playing out in Helen’s home and the ER, where she treats bloody patients whose suffering is a constant reminder of what her son may be enduring.
The hostage takers are never seen or heard, communicating only via a few cryptic emails.
In this way does Iranian-American writer-director Maryam Keshavarz (sharing screenplay credit with Jonathan Mastro) keep the picture’s focus tight. This is a homefront story, with the overseas chaos only briefly glimpsed in video footage.
The close bond between mother and son comes clear in the flashback footage to Andy’s childhood of a smiling boy on ice skates, and the adult who risks his life to bring the plight of war victims via his videos to the outside world.
Sarandon plays the part forcefully yet delicately. There are no polemics here, just a portrait of a mother willing to pay any price, to sell her house to raise the ransom, to beg for the life of her son in a video she makes at the urging of the Viper Club.
There is grace in Sarandon’s performance. And heartbreaking power.
★★★½ “Viper Club,” with Susan Sarandon, Matt Bomer, Edie Falco, Julian Morris, Adepero Oduye. Directed by Maryam Keshavarz, from a screenplay by Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro. 107 minutes. Rated R for language and some disturbing images. Opens Nov. 2 at multiple theaters.