The name, Philip Noyce should be synonymous when it comes to the thriller genre. He is a veteran filmmaker and master when it comes to constructing a thriller. He has directed some of the best including: “The Saint”, “The Quiet American”, “Catch A Fire”, “Salt” and two Jack Ryan movies (“Patriot Games”, “Clear and Present Danger”) with Harrison Ford that were both legit blockbusters.
In his first feature film since 2014’s young adult novel disaster “The Giver”. Philip Noyce is back with the based on a true story crime drama “Above Suspicion”, a film that is several years in the making. Originally filmed in 2016 and to be released in 2019, it was delayed another two years until now finally receiving a 2021 release. “Above Suspicion” was supposed to be one of two movies starring Emilia Clarke in 2019, with the other being the far better “Last Christmas”. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of the movie even after it’s five year delay, because studio Lionsgate hasn’t done much to make sure people even knew it was coming out.
It becomes clear pretty quickly from the start of why the movie was kept on the shelf for so long. Phillip Noyce’s last appearance in theaters “The Giver” was a disaster and his follow up is another disappointing effort in what is neither a particularly strong or memorable effort. “Above Suspicion” is a trashy effort, especially considering that Noyce was behind it. Instead it just comes across as a basic cable production with an R-rated flair. What’s even more puzzling is that writer Chris Gerolmo, who is responsible for Alan Parker’s 1988 classic film “Mississippi Burning” is the screenwriter of “Above Suspicion”.
Taking place between 1988 and 1989. “Above Suspicion” takes place in Pikeville, Kentucky. A former mining town that’s fallen on hard times and is home to Susan Smith (Emilia Clarke “Game Of Thrones”), a drug addict who runs welfare scams with her abusive husband, Cash (played by “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville). Living in a house of criminals, Susan dreams of a better life and her ticket out of a bad situation arrives with Mark Putnam (Jack Huston), a new F.B.I. agent who’s just moved from Connecticut to begin his career and joined by his wife, Kathy (Sophie Lowe) and one year old daughter.
Susan is attracted to his clean-cut appearance and investigative attention, so she decides to become an informant for Mark, who’s looking to make a name for himself by nailing a series of bank robberies in town. She offers information leading to her family and friends, as she sees it’s an easy way out of the life she is currently living. Mark sets up a few busts, meeting with Susan, who is clearly falling for him and wants to take their connection to a romantic level. Giving in to his desires, Mark begins having sexual relations with Susan, compromising the case, everyone involved, while confusing his duty to the government and his devotion to his wife.
“Above Suspicion” opens with the title card “Based On A True Story” that’s followed by a voice over from Emilia Clarke’s Susan. While the British born Emilia Clarke tries to keep her Kentucky Fried accent together as much as she can (which isn’t always successful). Susan becomes the narrator of the story, but the only catch is that she is already dead and that leaves us with one major question. How did Susan wind up dead?
The real case of Susan Smith is a tragic one and for the most part “Above Suspicion” sticks to her lifestyle. Going from hooking up with a Kentucky drug dealer to finding herself deeply embedded in the local drug scene of prescription drugs and cocaine to meeting the young hotshot FBI agent Mark Putnam. But when Putnam tried to end things after he no longer really needed her, Susan had threatened to expose him and the FBI agent killed her. He was arrested in 1990 and the case is credited to being the first time that an FBI agent was convicted of murder.
Emilia Clarke is immensely adorable. One of the most beautiful and cutest actresses in showbiz and while she does her best to hold it all together, she is woefully miscast. Clarke and Noyce can’t get her to that place of addiction, spousal abuse and shocking violence in the films final act. As for Jack Huston, he just seems bored by the entire production. Other than being the nephew of the brother and sister duo Angelica and Danny Huston. I’m not familiar with Jack Houston’s work (other than HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) and if his work in “Above Suspicion” is any indication, then he has a long way to go to be compared to his famous family name.
Neither Clarke or Huston seems quite comfortable in their roles. It’s the kind of project that actors can just collect a paycheck and walk away from and pretend it never really happened (I’m sure Clarke and Huston already have). The whole film has that sense of let’s play “hillbilly dress-up” and I never bought any of these actors portrayals to make me believe that these were real people.
This is far from Noyce’s finest hour and with such a master filmmaker, it has no business being so bland. There’s certainly more than enough here of an intriguing story and one that should have been a tribute to Susan Smith. Unfortunately director Philip Noyce can’t figure out how to tell Susan’s story in a way that retains it’s gritty true crime feel. Instead Noyce goes more simplistic, by finding more interest in the seduction and moments of eroticism in trying to introduce some heat to a tragic tale.
If you still didn’t know it was all a true story, then stick around for the end credits to see an archival interview with the real Mark Putnam at the end. It could either be an attempt to show us that it really did happen like this or give a misguided attempt to let Putnam tell his side of the story. Either way “Above Suspicion” isn’t brutal enough, it isn’t dark enough, the stakes don’t feel high enough and most importantly it does a complete disservice to Susan Smith’s story.
GRADE: ★1/2☆☆☆☆ (1.5 out of 5)