“Inherit the Viper” is an inapt title for a better-than-not-crime drama. Yes, near the movie’s climax, Bruce Dern, playing a crusty old bar owner, tells the protagonist Kip (Josh Hartnett, underplaying beautifully) a dire story of a kid back in Dern’s crusty childhood, whose friends let him die of a snake bite. But the snake’s type isn’t mentioned. And the point of Dern’s story has to do with taking radical steps to stop the spread of venom. “Inherit the Viper” sounds like a martial arts movie. This ain’t.
Directed by Anthony Jerjen from a script by Andrew Crabtree, “Viper” is a terse, controlled thriller about how the family ties that bind — love, loyalty, survival — are tested by criminality and amorality, which here aren’t always analogous. Hartnett’s Kip and his sister, Josephine (the superb Margarita Levieva), are inheritors of their dad’s opioid-dealing franchise in their unnamed, gray-tinted, hardscrabble Ohio town. Josie’s arrogance and little brother Boots’s eagerness to enter the family business spell more trouble for Kip, who’s trying to arrange a quieter life for himself and his pregnant girlfriend.
As the movie heads for its quietly ghastly denouement, its plot mechanism gets a little wobbly, which is ultimately forgivable. It’s a genuinely tough picture, but it also has a real undercurrent of compassion. While it doesn’t pack quite the wallop of the cult classic 1992 “One False Move” film its makers show sufficient talent to suggest they might be able to concoct something of that caliber in the near future.