So near yet so far, Inherit the Viper could almost be a Paul Schrader-esque tale of pitiless redemption, à la Taxi Driver or First Reformed. We get both of those things – little pity and a lot of redemption – but who it’s meant to be directed at is never quite clear.
There are two leads. Margarita Levieva as Josie Conley, who we meet selling a pill to a local woman in the out-of-the-way town where her family are the go-to people for drugs. Opioids like “Oxy” are their current hot seller.
Next thing we or Josie knows is that the woman is dead in the toilet of the bar – she’s OD’d. It’s Josie who finds her. Businesslike to the end, she retrieves the remaining pill the dead woman hadn’t yet crushed up and injected. From the expression on Josie’s face, the pill can now be sold again. The dead woman is none of her concern. Or if she is then she’s collateral damage. Josie is a tough nut.
Then there’s Josh Hartnett as her brother, Kip, the one who deals with much of the upfront buying and distribution of the pills but is in most respects number two to Josie’s number one. Kip’s partner, Eve (Valorie Curry), is pregnant with his child. Kip has concerns about this. In this family business (inseparable from the family itself) Josie is the head, Kip is the heart.
Daddy, it turns out, was also in the business. This is what the Conleys do. Maybe they can do nothing else. And little brother Boots (Owen Teague) is showing an interest in becoming the latest family member to join the firm. Kip has misgivings about this too, but Josie does not. Boots decide to show his big brother and sister he’s big enough to make deals of his own. He gets it badly wrong, forcing Kip to step in, with extreme prejudice. People are dead. The sheriff, sweet on Josie, informs her that he can no longer turn a blind eye to the Conleys’ activities. They’ve crossed a line. The stage is set for a reckoning and a showdown.
There’s a nice conversation early on, where Kip and Josie step back and survey the landscape and wonder whether they are or are not the bad guys in all this. Are we the scumbags everyone says we are? It’s a brief diversion from the white-trash-on-opiods rut this film generally runs in, suggesting whole landscapes of Kip and Josie’s characters crying out to be explored.
Levieva, so good in The Deuce, struggles with her character’s lack of depth more than Hartnett, who deploys a one-size-fits-all masculine steeliness, beetle of brow, firm of mouth to the role of Kip. He gives it the old college try, in other words, but neither character resonates, so when the “with disastrous consequences” moment comes which Inherit the Viper has inevitably been heading towards, it barely registers.
Bruce Dern is in it, which comes as something of a shock, in a no-bit role as the owner of the bar where Josie sometimes plies her trade and Kip likes to kick back when angry locals aren’t haranguing him. In scant screen time, Dern, aged around 83 and playing a guy in a wheelchair and on oxygen, turns on the power and reminds us (again) how good he is. Brad William Henke is also pretty solid as the angry husband of the dead woman angling for a reckoning with the Conleys, though like everyone else, his character is underwritten.
In its favour, a female crime boss is something of a novelty and there is the makings of a subplot about the gendered tension between Josie and Kip. Better is the exploration of status as a function of job. Josie, also an alcoholic, we discover in strangely dislocated scenes at Alcoholics Anonymous, derives her sense of self (and income) from the family’s foul trade.
More time might have made for more nuance, and a greater emotional wallop, but in the tight 90 minutes available to director Anthony Jerjen and writer Andrew Crabtree they cannot pull it off. The insistently noirish cinematography (Nicholas Wiesnet) and score (Patrick Kirst) appear to be trying to fill in the gaps, protesting a bit too much as they go.
It’s not terrible. There is a good story in here waiting to be told. But it’s the story of either Kip or Josie. Inherit the Viper wants it both ways.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023