“Inherit the Viper” may be an undercooked and regretfully titled domestic crime drama about life in the grip of America’s opioid epidemic, but Anthony Jerjen’s debut feature can be compelling for how it explores the core ironies of a modern plague. This is a crisis fueled by drugs that were ostensibly designed to help people, and the three siblings at the heart of Jersen’s film — while never afforded the detail required to bleed off the screen — are constantly trying to dig themselves out of the pit their father left for them when he died; after sinking to a certain low, down can seem like the only way up. And after several years of cutting off their nose to spite their face, the surviving members of the Conley family are willing to do whatever it takes to numb the pain, which is something these small-time oxy dealers have in common with the sad rabble of local addicts whose misery funds their hope for the future. Someone’s problem is everyone’s problem.
By the time the movie begins, it’s clear that the Conley kids have already built up a tolerance to the hurt around them. Josie (“The Deuce” star Margarita Levieva) is the most desensitized to the hardship around her, and the most indifferent to her role in making it worse. When one of her customers suffers a fatal overdose in the bathroom of some dingy Ohio bar, Josie just snatches the leftover drugs out from the corpse’s hand and runs off to sell them to somebody else. It’s the rare grace note in a movie that’s often too busy turning the screws to hone in on its underlying human drama.
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Andrew Crabtree’s script has a keen sense of character, but many of the finer details are lost in a story that’s at once both extremely simple and frustratingly convoluted. The gist of it is that the Conleys are at war with themselves: Josie is the id lashing out at the world, her wistful older brother Kip (Josh Hartnett) is the superego war vet who wants to put all the pain behind him and commit to a middle-class existence with his cheery pregnant girlfriend, and teenage Boots (“Mrs. Fletcher” standout Owen Teague) is the impressionable baby of the family caught between them. Boots sees his brother as a hero and his sister as their salvation, and he’s wrong on at least one of those counts. When Boots and one of his dopey friends decide to steal Josie’s supply and get in the drug game on their own, Kip has to save them with his old sniper rifle, kicking off a spiral of dead-end violence that will force the Conleys to reckon with the kind of pain they’re willing to suffer for a brighter tomorrow. As Bruce Dern’s crotchety old bartender puts it: “Are you willing to cut off an arm to save the body?”
It’s a potentially compelling lens through which to look at the opioid epidemic, but “Inherit the Viper” struggles to see anything clearly. The trouble begins with that title, which somehow becomes even more awkward once Dern’s character explains what it means, at length, as part of a monologue-length metaphor that all but confirms the movie is playing without a full deck of cards.
Additional evidence abounds, often in the midst of otherwise affecting scenes. Jerjen’s solemn direction lends everything the weight it demands, but the brooding heaviness is more than the script can bear, and the film’s dour patina of Ozarkian poverty soon begins to feel like a flimsy backdrop. The air of misery is too thick and amorphous to support cut-rate dialogue like “The world’s a cold, ruthless bitch” and, as Kip’s girlfriend shouts after him before disappearing back into the vault of disposable movie spouses: “Don’t you do something you can’t come back from, you hear?” The specifics of opioid-ravaged Ohio, so pungent in the opening scenes, quickly dissipate into vapor, and no one in Jerjen’s capable cast is given enough raw material to climb above the clichés (though Levieva comes awfully closest as she fights a losing battle against the better angels of Josie’s nature).
The bigger hurdle is that “Inherit the Viper” fails to meaningfully develop any coherent sense of escalating drama. Like a body that feels like it’s missing all the muscle tissue between its vital organs, this 80-minute movie struggles for structure after Kip shoots the dealers who are about to kill his brother. The boys scramble for cash while Josie commits to protecting her family at any cost, but there’s no accounting for the consequences that result from those choices, or how they eventually crash into each other. The dynamic between these siblings is too hazy to define, even if they only speak in violence, while a half-shaded relationship between Josie and the local sheriff (“Romeo + Juliet” vet Dash Mihok) feels like it either should have been doubled or deleted entirely.
“Inherit the Viper” is at its best when keyed into the disposability of human lives, but most of the film can hardly be bothered to care about the ones it chooses to follow. Perhaps there’s a more engaging version of this story in which Kip becomes the moral battleground; in which the drama hinges on the agony of a big brother whose dad is still poisoning his younger siblings from beyond the grave. What good is cutting off your arm if the venom has already made its way to your heart? There may not be a good answer to that question, but “Inherit the Viper” never quite figures out what it’s even trying to ask. It diagnoses real pain and tries to ease it as fast as possible no matter the consequences, and of course that only makes it worse. By the time it’s over, irony is the only tangible thing this movie has left.
Lionsgate will release “Inherit the Viper” in theaters and on VOD on January 10.