Synopsis: A newly married FBI agent is assigned to an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky and drawn into an illicit affair with an impoverished local woman who becomes his star informant. She sees in him her means of escape; instead, it’s a ticket to disaster for both of them.
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe, Austin Hébert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Benson Miller, Kevin Dunn, Brian Lee Franklin
Director: Phillip Noyce
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’m the first to admit that it’s taken me a while to buy a ticket on the Emilia Clarke train. I’m likely one of the last people to have avoided playing the Game of Thrones, I’ve yet to be completely won over by Clarke’s charms in films like Me Before You and Last Christmas, nor was I convinced she was destined to be an action heroine by Terminator: Genisys or Solo: A Star Wars Story. I just wasn’t seeing a star there like most people did. In the end, what I needed was a movie like Above Suspicion to turn my head and finally notice there was an actress with some depth there…and unfortunately this time she’s the best thing about the film.
That’s partly due to strength of Clarke’s performance as Susan Smith which, through no fault of her own, winds up overshadowing everyone else in the film. She sets a high bar for commitment: to the look, the accent, the demeanor, everything is considered and casts a believable picture of the local high-school dropout and sometime drug abuser. Living in a cramped double wide with her drug dealing ex-husband (a bedraggled Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness) and a menagerie of rogue deplorables while raising their two children, Smith busies herself with small-time crimes like check fraud to help her stay afloat. Smith senses an opportunity for change when she hears new FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, The Longest Ride) is working with the town’s law enforcement (Austin Hébert, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) to ferret out who has been robbing rural banks.
Armed with firsthand knowledge of the culprit and not unwilling to give up names in exchange for payment, Smith’s informant relationship with Putnam escalates quickly to a physical level, even as she befriends his new wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) at the same time. However, once Agent Putnam has what he needs from Smith she becomes more of a liability than an asset and as her usefulness wanes, so does his interest in her on an intimate level. With Putnam moving on and leaving Smith to deal with the fallout from the town who now views her as a snitch, she becomes desperate to either get her man back or make sure his success is short lived.
Little more than a juiced up made for television movie about the real-life scandal that rattled a small Kentucky town in 1988, Above Suspicion should work on screen as well as it does on the page. Based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name and adapted by Chris Gerolmo, who penned Mississippi Burning, it’s hard to fathom this tale of an FBI agent’s affair with his informant that led to murder could ever be called lackluster but absent in overall polish it certainly is. Surprisingly, it’s directed by Phillip Noyce who is no slouch when it comes to putting together a crackerjack thriller with films like Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, or heck, even the severely compromised 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver to his credit.
The whole film feels flat and even though cinematographer Elliot Davis (Love the Coopers) captures some beautiful Appalachian scenery, he has a curious obsession with filming Clarke on a diagonal tilt and it doesn’t make the rest of the movie have any more depth to it. It just makes you cock your head to one side in all of her close-ups. Clarke is also underserved by Huston as her co-star, with the two exhibiting zero of the chemistry necessary to create the kind of heat that would convince us of the passion that burned hot but cooled dramatically once Putnam, a clear opportunist, saw something shinier ahead of him. Huston plays the endgame at the outset, leaving little room for his characterization to grow having one foot out Smith’s door from the beginning.
If there’s one actor that feels like a match for Clarke, it’s Lowe as Putnam’s short-suffering wife. Not being married that long, Kathy Putnam already seems to understand that her husband is a flawed man who will need constant attention throughout their union. Lowe brings a brittleness to the role that doesn’t stem from being a jilted wife but from being resentful of having to do all the hard work with her husband while Smith gets him for the fun parts. Together, Clarke and Lowe share some excellent scenes that spark with the kind of liveliness the rest of the film really needed. Popping up in a brief role, so brief I have to believe more of it was left on the cutting room floor, Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus) is Clarke’s bouffant-coiffed beautician sister that I wanted additional time with. Sadly, the script favors more scenes between Putnam and Smith that just rehash the same arguments over and over again on why they can’t be together. Point taken, point made.
Originally intended for release in 2019, Above Suspicion fell victim to the delays of the pandemic and is flying below the radar into theaters before joining the other generic-named titles in the Redbox machines at your local gas station. The entertainment value is marginal, and it’s mostly due to Clarke and some high production values that keep the film buoyed for most of it’s average running time. Is it a total wash? No, nothing about tips the scales so much that I would say to skip it but thinking about how a tweak in the casting or even adjustments in performances could have helped up the ante just makes me wish I’d seen that better movie instead.