Emilia Clarke stores away her English accent (and Mother of Dragons renown) in the new movie “Above Suspicion”, a grimy southern noir from Australian director Phillip Noyce. The film was shot all the way back in 2016 but is just now finding its way to American screens. That type of hesitation doesn’t exactly exude studio confidence. While watching the film it’s pretty easy to detect the cause for concern. At the same time, the movie is kept afloat by its compelling lead and just enough surface-level treatment of its true story inspiration to keep things interesting.
“Above Suspicion” is based on Joe Shakey’s book of the same name, a non-fiction work that tells the tragic story of Susan Daniels Smith. I’ll stay away from detailing Smith’s story as doing so would leave no real reason (other than Clarke) to watch the movie. I say that because one of the film’s biggest issues is that it leaves too much meat on the bone. The movie we get seems content with touching on the high points of the story which are certainly worth covering. But Noyce never seems confident in his approach to the material and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo can’t make the story as compelling as it should be.
Clarke is the one real highlight here. She puts a nice accent onto dialogue that’s caught somewhere between authentic and full-blown Southern stereotype. Set in the Appalachian Mountain valley town of Pikeville, Kentucky in 1988, Clarke plays Susan Smith, a young mother whose life has been one bad beat after another. She’s always wanted to get out of Pikeville, yet she almost seems bound to the tragic hand she has been dealt. Instead she’s stuck living in a trailer park with her abusive ex-husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville). “There’s only two ways to make money in this town since the mine shut down,” she says at one point. “One is the funeral business and the other is selling drugs.” Cash is certainly no funeral director.
Stuck in a dead-end world of drugs and rural poverty, Susan sees a way out when ambitious clean-cut FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) moves into town with his wife (Sophie Lowe) and their new baby. Hungry to climb his way up the Bureau’s ladder, Mark is there to track down a serial bank robber, something that would put a significant notch in his belt and get the attention he craves from his bosses.
When Susan and Mark eventually meet, he convinces her to become an informant. Professionally, their partnership proves fruitful for both of them. Mark gets closer to his big bust and Susan gets some much needed cash for every bit of information she provides. But then they cross the line and the two begin a steamy affair that quickly sours. Feeling he has too much at stake (professionally more so than at home), Mark decides to moves on. But Susan is having none of it which leads their story down a darker and more sordid path.
As you can tell, there is plenty here for a good rural crime thriller especially with two capable leads like Clarke and Huston. Yet from start to finish, the movie remains as tepid as its generic title. It’s never boring. It simply fails to explore the human complexities that should be the centerpiece of a story like this. Even the film’s well-meaning style choices feel dated and unneeded. Susan’s narration, the drab color palette, the sweaty close-ups – none of it enhances the story or the characters in any meaningful way.
“Above Suspicion” has a story worthy of being told but it’s emphasis is too often on the wrong thing. It’s a shame because even amid the clichés and character types Emilia Clarke gives a strong performance that will probably go unseen by many. That’s because the film does little to stand out and set itself apart. And it isn’t helped by all the time spent sitting on the shelf and the almost non-existent promotion once it was finally set for release. Still, if you’re looking for something to watch at home you could do a lot worse, even though the film itself could have been a lot better. “Above Suspicion” is now streaming on VOD.