Emilia Clarke single-handedly lifts Above Suspicion with a gritty and brutal performance. The film is adapted from an infamous true crime that took place decades ago in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains. An illicit affair between an informant and an FBI agent spins out of control with tragic consequences. Above Suspicion is loaded with drugs, sex, and violence, but plays out like a tawdry cable movie of the week.
Emilia Clarke stars as Susan Smith. In 1988 Pikeville, Kentucky, Smith lived in a trailer park with her two children and drug dealer ex-husband, Cash (Johnny Knoxville). She was beaten regularly, addicted to cocaine, and a welfare cheat to support her family. Smith yearned for a better life, but could never escape the sinkhole of her surroundings. She and Cash hosted drug-fueled parties with local hooligans.
Jack Huston co-stars as Mark Putnam, a recently promoted FBI agent with a young wife (Sophie Lowe) and newborn daughter. Putnam despised his transfer to Pikeville, but saw it as an opportunity for advancement. A bank robber had hit eleven banks in the area. While researching the crime, he came into contact with Cash and Susan Smith. Putnam soon realizes that Susan lived at the nexus for drugs and theft. She was utterly smitten by the handsome Putnam. But becoming an FBI informant was dangerous business. Snitches were despised and didn’t last long in the Kentucky hills.
Above Suspicion succeeds in its harrowing portrayal of Susan Smith. She was a product of her environment. Criminality, domestic violence, and addiction was an accepted fate; anything to dull the drudgery of her existence. Mark Putnam represented a clean-cut, sophisticated way out. He was everything she dreamed of in a man. She saw a better life for herself and her children through him. Putnam was intoxicated by her smoldering sexuality and ability to further his professional goals. The film clearly defines their disparate agendas. She desperately needed escape, but was inexorably drawn further into a worse situation.
Above Suspicion puts a lot of emphasis on salacious details, but not enough on exposition. The supporting characters are either hillbilly law enforcement officers or coke-snorting rubes. Smith’s sister (Thora Birch) has a semblance of normality, but gets mere minutes of screen time. Australian director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector) gets bogged down in the filth of the narrative. Too much character development is left on the table. An initially intriguing scene between Smith and Putnam’s wife had the possibility of serious dramatic depth. But instead of exploring further, the bumpkin drugs and sex rages back to the forefront.
Emilia Clarke displays significant range in this gutsy role. She portrays Susan Smith as desperate, naive, and foolishly impetuous. Clarke is beaten to a pulp in several graphic, stomach-churning scenes. She gives it her all in this film. Even her Southern accent is flawless. You couldn’t get further away from Game of Thrones’ dragon-riding Daenerys Targaryen or the guns-blazing Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys. Above Suspicion is worth seeing as a showcase for her talent. The film is currently in theaters and available for digital download from Lionsgate with a DVD/Blu-ray release on May 18th.
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