ABOVE SUSPICION movie poster | ©2021 Lionsgate

ABOVE SUSPICION movie poster | ©2021 Lionsgate

Rating: R
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Sophie Lowe, Johnny Knoxville, Austin Hebert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Miller, Kevin Dunn, Thora Birch
Writer: Chris Gerolmo, based on the book ABOVE SUSPICION by Joe Sharkey
Director: Phillip Noyce
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release Date: May 7, 2021

ABOVE SUSPICION is based on the true-crime book of the same name by Joe Sharkey, concerning the murder of Susan Smith.

Susan, played here by Emilia Clarke, narrates her story from beyond the grave. It’s not a spoiler that she ends up dead, as that’s pretty much the first thing she tells us.

Susan is a native of the small town of Pineville, Kentucky. At least in 1988, when ABOVE SUSPICION opens, Pineville has an outsize drug problem that affects most of its shrinking community. Since the mine closed, there are little opportunities for employment. Folks are therefore stealing and dealing to get by.

With all of this crime going on, perhaps it’s not too surprising that there’s an FBI office in the area, despite the sparse population. Newly-minted Special Agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) arrives from Connecticut, ready to start putting bad guys in jail. His enthusiasm annoys his supervisor (Chris Mulkey).

Susan is unhappily sharing a home with her ex-husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville) and their two neglected young children. She takes one look at the clean, healthy, educated Mark and sees him as the knight who will come to her rescue.

At first, Susan seems to be right. On Susan’s tip, Mark arrests a bank robber who has been complicated Susan’s life. Susan relishes her role as an FBI informant, which makes her want Mark that much more.

What Susan tells Mark she wants is rehab and money, both of which she needs. But what she finds essential is the sense of identity being an informant gives her. Being useful to this upstanding member of society gives her a purpose that has been lacking for her until now.

Despite it being a firing offense for an FBI agent to be intimate with an informant, and although Mark is married to the likable Kathy (Sophie Lowe), an affair commences. Mark’s feelings of guilt are no match for his lust.

But Mark also uses every bit of privilege he has as the one holding most of the cards in the relationship with Susan, which she furiously resents. Things escalate.

Susan’s narration is wry and often funny. Still, she’s not presented as being much more self-aware in her new omniscient state than she was when alive. Then again, Mark is likewise slow to face facts about himself or the situation he’s largely responsible for creating. It’s a tragedy in a true sense, with a bit of a surprise at the end.

Director Phillip Noyce and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo make Susan’s growing frustration palpable. We also feel Mark’s ambition to do well here, so that he can move onward and upward. The filmmakers’ present Pineville as a place that is claustrophobic and reflexively violent, and it’s all too credible.

The title of ABOVE SUSPICION is misleading, not because it doesn’t apply, but because that’s not really what it’s all about. It’s a collision of low self-esteem, emotional blindness, misunderstandings about sex, and mortal anguish. It’s less about anybody getting away with anything than it is about the makings of a calamity.

We see photos of the real people involved at the end, and hear from the actual Mark Putnam, for those interested in the basis of ABOVE SUSPICION

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