History is rife with fascinating true stories just waiting to be told. Movies often provide the chance to illuminate these relatively unknown, but nevertheless compelling tales. However, this means filmmakers have a duty to give them the best showcase possible. In the case of Phillip Noyce’s Above Suspicion, the story of the first FBI agent to be convicted of murder rings far less compelling than it should. The film, which stars Emilia Clarke and Jack Huston as the central tragic pair, finally made its U.S. debut this weekend after being released internationally over the past two years. It’s based on Joe Sharkey’s novel of the same name, and one has to wonder if that book did a better job of telling this admittedly intriguing plot of love, betrayal, and murder. Above Suspicion might have solid performers in leads Clarke and Huston, but it plays as more of a Lifetime thriller than a devastating true story.
Above Suspicion is set in the Appalachian town of Pikeville, Kentucky, home to addict Susan Smith (Clarke). Stuck living with her abusive ex (Johnny Knoxville), Susan’s life takes a drastic turn when she meets up-and-coming FBI agent Mark Putnam (Huston), an ambitious man with eyes on the future. Mark is eager to catch a bank robber who has so far evaded authorities, and he soon coaxes Susan into acting as an informant for him. Their professional partnership proves fruitful, though it isn’t long before they give into temptation and fall into bed together. As Susan grows more attached to Mark, he looks to move on with his sweet wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe). Needless to say, Susan isn’t willing to let him go so easily.
On the surface, the true story of Mark Putnam and Susan Smith is a compelling one, and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo’s decision to frame Above Suspicion from Susan’s point of view seems promising. However, the issues with the script come in right from the start, with Clarke delivering an unnecessary narration that is riddled with clichés. Every once in a while, Gerolmo finds a hint of something insightful, but is too trapped in stereotypes to really mine it for something worthwhile. Susan and Mark fit archetypes that have been seen far too many times in film: the “mad” woman done wrong (not to draw a parallel between Clarke’s role on Game of Thrones) and the good guy who isn’t as squeaky clean as one might think. It leaves Above Suspicion feeling less like something that truly happened and more like a generic crime thriller.
On a technical level, Above Suspicion makes several decisions that do little to add to it; in fact, they often confuse more than anything. With dialogue that better resembles mumbling than clear speech and a washed-out color palette, it’s clear Noyce is trying to evoke a gritty style. In a way, he does. But he also leaves Above Suspicion looking cheaper than it probably should. Instead of trying to come up with a unique way to tell this kind of story, Noyce relies on tricks that have already been done in far better movies. The cinematography, courtesy of Elliot Davis, is made up of numerous angles and close-ups that might feel artistic, but ultimately add nothing to the overall effect.
The cast does their best to shoulder the tepid material, with Clarke rising to the occasion. Kentucky accent aside, Clarke reminds viewers that she managed to get through the final season of Game of Thrones with an excellent performance. Huston makes for a good scene partner, though both he and Clarke are hindered by a lack of real material to work with. Their characters have little depth, so their performances can only go so far. In terms of standouts among the supporting cast, few really make an impression, though Lowe garners sympathy as Mark’s wife who has a dark past of her own, but cast it all aside to get the perfect life. She’s almost a more intriguing character than Mark, which says a lot when one remembers this is about how he was driven to murder.
Above Suspicion should’ve been poised for success: It has Clarke in the leading role, a fascinating story, and a solidly interesting point of view through Susan’s eyes. Unfortunately, it never manages to get past the clichés and generic stylistic flares that bog it down. True crime buffs could find something here, but they might be better off reading the novel it’s based on. Susan Smith’s story deserved to be told, but there had to have been a better way to do it.
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Above Suspicion is now playing in theaters and is available on VOD. It is 104 minutes long and rated R for sexual content and drug use throughout, language and some strong violence.
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- Above Suspicion (2021)Release date: May 14, 2021
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