Director Phillip Noyce is best known for slick, starry thrillers like Clear and Present Danger and Salt, where film icons such as Harrison Ford and Angelina Jolie play efficient agents and spies. Mark Putnam, the real-life FBI operative played by Jack Huston in Noyce’s new film Above Suspicion, would probably like to keep that sort of company; he’s characterised here as a relentless straight arrow with plenty of ambition. That ambition is limited by his station in rural Kentucky, where he meets Susan Smith, a local drug addict, dealer, and all-purpose survivor, played by Emilia Clarke (Game Of Thrones).
Susan is stranded in her hometown without many resources beyond her abusive ex-husband (Johnny Knoxville) and their continuing welfare fraud, so when Putnam approaches her about becoming an informant, she sees it as her way out. Putnam convinces her that he can help turn her life around – and after minimal resistance, he also lets her seduce him. At first, it’s easy to wonder whether Susan and her new, married FBI boyfriend are strategising each other into bed. That may be Susan’s initial motivation for the affair, but it quickly becomes clear that these two dopes are in the throes of genuine romantic (or at least sexual) intoxication. You don’t need to be familiar with the details of the real-life story to figure out that this won’t end well.
Shot in pale blue tones that make the whole movie look like it’s taking place in the chilly hours just after dawn, Above Suspicion evokes post-industrial America with plenty of detailed sets and convincing performances. At the same time, Susan’s world-weary narration diffuses some of that atmosphere by explaining too much. Though the voiceover provides some necessary colour commentary from her point of view, it sometimes seems to paper over cracks in the plot caused by heavily cut-down scenes, especially anything involving another FBI official played by character actor Kevin Dunn, who has a prominent billing and very few lines. The movie really belongs to Clarke, who tones down her trademark eyebrow acting but amps up her frustration at being surrounded by an unhelpful family, various hangers-on, and the incessant beeps and bloops of the video games her two kids keep playing. Clarke makes Susan’s desperation magnetic – though she’s somewhat less convincing in portraying her drug addiction, which is talked about more than it’s actually depicted.
There are times when Above Suspicion resembles an old-fashioned TV movie: It’s based on a famous scandal, more interested in melodrama than sociology, and views its subjects without the panoramic scope of better crime films. To Noyce’s credit, the film makes an impression even when it feels truncated. He directs action crisply, and does his best not to gawk at the story’s hard-living grimness. Above Suspicion moves so swiftly that it only starts to feel like a foregone conclusion in its final minutes.
- Director: Phillip Noyce
- Starring: Emila Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville
- Release date: July 17 (Digital)