Writer Chris Gerolmo (Mississippi Burning) takes Joe Sharkey’s true-crime book Above Suspicion and puts it into the hands of director Phillip Noyce (Salt). He turns it into a thriller that is still worth watching despite some depressing moments with a rather abrupt ending.
Susan Smith (Emilia Clarke) has spent her entire life in Pikesville, KY. Like most people that feel trapped in a small, rural town, she longs for a way to escape. For her, the life with two children while living in the same house as her drug-dealing ex-husband whose customers come in and out nightly is more existence than anything else. So she jumps at the chance to turn over information to the FBI in exchange for a way out. But what started as a dream becomes a nightmare for both Susan and FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) when they fall into a sexual relationship. After he transfers, things go from bad to worse, quickly accelerating from rage to murder.
The story is engaging for its type and rendered well throughout most of the film. Although a vivid picture is painted of the characters and situations as they evolve, Gerolmo might have taken some exceptions in the timelines and events to make the story a bit more intense. This doesn’t play to the tale’s detriment, though. Sadly, the ending seems a bit rushed against the backdrop of a solidly woven script, as though the final moments do not deserve as much attention or accuracy as the events that led to them.
Noyce uses the dark, depressing locations in the film to great advantage, making sure the audience is painfully aware of what a dreary life most of the characters live. There is no question as to why Susan would want to escape an endless cycle of addiction and abuse. Clarke’s exceptional portrayal of a woman plotting her way out of what she sees as a dead-end enhances this. Johnny Knoxville, in the rare serious role of Susan’s ex-husband Cash, adds to the mix of depression and a complete lack of hope, outside of a miracle. Despite the performances, including Huston’s initially squeaky-clean agent, there isn’t any sympathy that develops for anyone. This is likely the intent because there isn’t a character here deserving of it.
In addition to stellar direction and performances, the settings and nearly constant small musical pieces make it abundantly clear – this was a dead-end life in what Susan saw as a dead-end town surrounded by dead-end people.
Above Suspicion takes a true-life case that rocked the FBI to its core and led to the first conviction of an agent for murder and makes it essentially interesting. It isn’t a perfect film, but as a true-crime tale, it is above average.