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There are a number of interesting things going on in “Viper Club.” Unfortunately, too few of them are happening on screen.

This is a tangential experience film; instead of showing the main action, it shows a person's reaction to that action. This can and does work if that reaction is dramatically strong on its own. The reaction here, though, is somewhat muddled (if sincere), and the action itself is obviously headed toward one of two possible conclusions.

The person doing the reacting is Helen (Susan Sarandon), an emergency room nurse in upstate New York. Her son, Andy (Julian Morris), a freelance journalist working in Syria, has been taken hostage by terrorists.

Except we only see Andy in flashbacks and never see the terrorists. Instead, we watch Helen trying to figure out how to bring Andy home safely. The unhelpful government tells her to keep quiet so it can work through back channels, but it seems ineffectual at best.

Eventually friends of Andy's, a group of Middle East freelancers who call themselves the Viper Pit, convince Helen to go public. Meanwhile, a sympathetic, wealthy mother (Edie Falco) who's son suffered the same fate, helps Helen with fundraising (the terrorists want $20 million). And Helen continues working at the hospital, where she befriends the mother (Lola Kirke) of a comatose daughter.

All of which is realistic enough, and the performances are uniformly fine, but Sarandon is left carrying a big lump of inactivity on her back. What's Andy's imprisonment like? What's going on with the Viper Club (we only meet two members), where'd they get that name and why is it the movie's title? There are a lot of other ways writer-director Maryam Keshavarz could have approached this.

To her credit, she does raise an essential question — who's responsible for idealistic adrenaline junkie freelancers who choose to go into danger zones with no backup? Parents and friends likely to be bankrupted by ransom demands? The government (taxpayers)? The film avoids any answer, just as it avoids the tragedy at hand.

'Viper Club'

GRADE: C

Rated R for language and some disturbing images

Running time: 109 minutes

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