I hated Above Suspicion in the first two minutes. The first line of dialog, actually. It’s rare that I start a review with something like that, because it sure as shit colors the rest of this, don’t it? But then it’s also rare for a movie to hit me with two of my pet peeves right off the bat: a character narrating to us from beyond the grave, and speaking to us in a ridiculously rural accent as shaky as the many excuses given for the film’s years-long delay. The simple fact is it isn’t very good, and Lionsgate wasn’t doing much to make sure people knew it was coming out.
Shot way back in 2016 and completed a year later, Above Suspicion might have seen some benefit if released at that time, when star Emilia Clarke was still riding dragons on HBO every week. But now, after helping tank the Star Wars and Terminator franchises, she doesn’t exactly help the film feel like anything other than C-level dreck, despite an interesting story of an illicit affair between an ambitious FBI agent and his informant on a big case. The whole thing is drab crap, and what makes the whole thing worse is that talented folks came together, after the Joe Sharkey non-fiction book was optioned some two decades ago, to make said crap a reality.
Clarke, whose Kentucky Fried accent comes and goes like the wind, plays Susan Smith, a drug-addicted floozy living in a cramped double-wide with her two kids, her abusive ex-husband (Johnny Knoxville, as if drawn to these roles like a magnet), his girlfriend, and more. She’s desperate for a way out of this place, where the only ways to earn a living are through selling drugs or being a snitch for the law; she chooses both. That obviously complicated double-life is especially knotty because Susan has fallen in love with her handsome FBI handler, Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, too dull to register), who she sees as her dream ticket out out of there. Married and with a newborn, Mark tries to resist Susan’s overt attempts to seduce him (the ol’ foot in the groin under the table trick always works!!!), but when she helps him break a big case, he gives in and two start getting it on.
There’s enough disappointment to go around here. It’s genuinely hard to believe the script is by Mississippi Burning writer Chris Gerolmo, but then this is also his first big-screen feature since then. Behind the camera is Philip Noyce, a veteran who has directed some impressive, money-making stuff in the past. I’ll love him forever for stuff like Dead Calm and Blind Fury, while his Jack Ryan movies with Harrison Ford were legit blockbusters. He also directed Angelina Jolie in a whole series of films, most-recently Salt. Above Suspicion has no business being so bland under his guidance, but there it just is. Even the cinematography is like someone shot it from inside of a coffin it’s so damn bleak and grey. Clearly, that’s what they’re going for, to capture the hopelessness within this poor community, but without characters we’re given a reason to care about it’s all pretty meaningless.
On the one hand, it’s easy to feel for Clarke being stuck with a role like this, because Susan is impossible to sympthaize with. Actually, I don’t know if we have someone to root for out of this scummy group. We’re given plenty of close-ups of Susan’s attractive face, only to see it twisted into a manipulative sneer, or brutally bashed-in by men and women alike. They want us to feel something for her that just isn’t there. As Susan cruelly befriends Mark’s wife Kathy (played by Blow the Man Down breakout Sophia Lowe), she shows that her desperation is dangerous right from the start. Mark is no peach, either, for his wanton disregard for all of the women in his life, trampling upon them to further his career. Supporting players are one-dimensional in their self-serving awfulness.
On the other hand, Clarke doesn’t make the best of this bad situation, either. This is one of those “rite of passage” roles that certain actresses take on the way up, to show their range playing somone far out of their cultural comfort zone. Usually the material is better than this, though. Beyond her lack of grip on the accent (it only comes out during narration), Clarke can’t sell the yearning that should be radiating from Susan at all times. Because that is what Above Suspicion needs us to feel most. Without it, this might as well be a reenactment from a true crime series on Oxygen.