Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a story worth telling. Or, in the case of the new film, Above Suspicion, sometimes the truth should well have been left alone.
Based on a true story, FBI informant Susan Smith, played by Emilia Clarke, was killed by her FBI agent handler and lover Mark Putnam, played here by Jack Huston. Above Suspicion recounts the events between 1987 and 1989 in Pikeville, Kentucky, when Putnam kills Smith after she threatens to expose their affair to his wife and the Bureau. Mark, a rookie agent when he arrives in the small, poor mining town in rural Kentucky, finds a perfect partner in Susan, a conniving, well-connected drug dealer and addict who knows everyone in town, especially the criminal element. But when Mark and Susan begin an affair, Mark finds it difficult to get out once his use for her runs out. The rationale to turn this into a feature film seems to be the fact that Mark Putnam was the first FBI agent ever convicted of murder, which does seem to imply an interesting story is somewhere in the mix, but, unfortunately, an interesting story is not contained anywhere in this cliché-ridden, tired tale.
The structure, along with the voiceover narration, doesn’t hide much from the audience, even from the beginning, as the film is mostly in flashback, its design not to be a whodunit, but more a whydunit. And that’s where it fails miserably. Written by Chris Gerolmo, based on the book by Joe Sharkey, Above Suspicion is from Susan’s point-of-view, as we hear her thoughts as she is looking back at her life and trying to analyze when and how it all went wrong. But, even though we are looking at everything through her eyes, the film is completely about him. Beyond everything else that’s wrong with this film (and there is a lot), the deepest insult to any audience, especially one in 2021, is the fact that the entire film is built on the premise of the poor addict whore who taints the innocence of the perfect, pure, white male savior.
Far beyond the traces of so many other films that this one steals from, from Lovely Bones to Winter’s Bone to Fatal Attraction (I was totally expecting a poor squirrel to fall victim to some propane stove), not to mention its style, ripped off from nearly every Tony Scott movie from the ‘80s, including the negative female stereotypes, Above Suspicion can’t even live up to its hilariously generic sex thriller title, that is as stuck in the past as this film is. At best, Above Suspicion is a campy, overwrought wanna-be ‘80s style throwback, but, at worst, it’s far more dangerous. The outrageous sexism and treatment of women in this film borders on repulsive, especially in a film that portends to feature a strong, female heroine at its center. I truly thought the days of having to sit through a major motion picture that has its female lead literally on her knees servicing her man in order to get back into his good graces, or seducing her ex in order to gain some intel, or getting beaten to a pulp by a man who then casually murders her in a “fit of rage” that is somehow quietly explained and excused were over. It’s unbelievable how insulting, how tone-deaf and how out-of-touch this film is. There could have been a million more inventive, and less sexist, ways to tell this story and none of them were chosen.
It would be difficult for any actor to rise above poor material such as this, so I have to applaud both Clarke and Huston for doing everything they can to breathe some sort of life into their thinly-drawn characters. Clarke in particular carries most of the burden in this film, and makes the most of the melodramatic and over-exaggerated emotional outbursts she is asked to enact. Huston is much stiffer, but the character allows for very little texture, which is no fault of his own.
The performances are the best part of this film, as almost everything about it is either laughable or insanely insulting. I was actually looking forward to this film, as director Phillip Noyce was a favorite of mine in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, having directed three of my favorite popcorn movies of that era, Dead Calm (1989), Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). But the Noyce that injected those films with tension, genuine thrills, personality and excitement is nowhere to be found in this heavy-handed and dreary film that was a misery to sit through.
The heavily-filtered photography is overly noticeable, perhaps a nod to Ozark, a vibe this film is clearly trying to emulate (unsuccessfully), and the music is too distracting and odd in too many moments. There are odd choices with the casting as well, as the film wastes great character actors Kevin Dunn, Thora Birch and Chris Mulkey by giving them hardly anything to do, and yet they have Austin Hebert play a town sheriff who is in half the scenes. Nothing against Hebert at all, but, after a while, it plays like an inside joke that there is seemingly only one cop in this entire county. Of all the supporting roles, none other than Johnny Knoxville turns in the strongest performance as Susan’s drug-dealing ex-husband. Although I’m sure he’d love to play something other than white trash someday, too.
Not everything from the ‘80s needs to be re-lived, Above Suspicion is an unfortunate case in point.
Originally published on Awards Watch.