'Above Suspicion': Film Review

Above Suspicion- Publicity still - H 2020
John P. Johnson
Sex, drugs and J. Edgar-sized violations of FBI ethics rules.

Phillip Noyce adapts Joe Sharkey's true-crime book about an FBI agent (Jack Huston) who has an affair with his informant (Emilia Clarke).

A Kentucky drug dealer (Emilia Clarke) sees an FBI agent (Jack Huston) as her romantic gateway out of a dead-end life in Phillip Noyce's Above Suspicion, an adaptation of Joe Sharkey's account of true events in 1988-89.

Completed in 2017, the film could have been released at the height of Clarke's Game of Thrones popularity. But Sharkey's own website describes (in the author's words) a "distribution clusterf***" in which random international theatrical engagements have left the film vulnerable to piracy long before its release in the West. A hoped-for U.S. opening in May was scuttled by the novel coronavirus, while U.K. distributors are releasing on streaming starting this week.

A release three years ago would also have helped the film thematically, as its setting — economically devastated coal country where, according to Clarke's Susan Smith, the funeral business and the drug trade are the only ways to make any money — foreshadows an opioid crisis that, by this point, has already been the focus of several big-screen dramas. Susan isn't merely a partner with her ex-husband in supplying pills and powders to neighbors every payday; she's also engaged in some sort of welfare fraud, drawing checks from multiple states. She's a peach.

But one day, as she's walking down the sidewalk swigging cough syrup, a lightning bolt hits her. As she puts it in a voiceover the film relies on heavily throughout, she sees a man who seems to have stepped out of the perfect world of a fashion magazine. Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) is a straight-arrow G-man, newly arrived at the Pikeville, Kentucky, FBI office with wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) and infant in tow. Hoping to be promoted to a sunnier burg in no more than two years, he immediately sets his sights on catching a serial bank robber.

But first, another crime brings Putnam to the trailer Susan still shares with former husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville). Cash is an ex-con with plenty of trouble hanging over his head, but the next couple of scenes find him, at Susan's urging, behaving as if he has the upper hand in interactions with the feds.

Susan mostly reads like a femme fatale in these scenes — she sticks her foot in Putnam's crotch and stares intensely while she and Cash are sitting at a dinner table across from him. But the movie needs her to be more vulnerable than that: As the story develops and Susan becomes Agent Putnam's informant, we're meant to believe that she's genuinely committed to a fantasy in which she'll win his heart, have his babies, kick drugs and start anew, far from this hellhole. But it's often unclear if Clarke agrees with this take on the character. Susan's smoldering come-ons look calculated, and she generally seems to see too many of the angles to really believe in fairy tales.

Susan does get Mark into bed, of course, and if this lifelong good boy feels guilty, Huston does a fine job of hiding it from us. Soon they're sampling every motel and back seat available within an hour's drive. When developments at work and home give Mark multiple reasons to pull away from her, Chris Gerolmo's script sends Susan tumbling toward Fatal Attraction-grade obsession — even if Noyce (The Giver, Salt) has too much taste to make this an exploitation flick as emotions turn violent.

Though tech values and supporting performances (especially Knoxville's) are unimpeachable, Suspicion doesn't conjure its setting as persuasively as some of the other drug-centric rural dramas we've seen lately. Susan spends a fair bit of time telling us and others about the place's gravitational pull, and whenever the story hops to a nearby small town, title cards inform us how many miles away from Pikeville we are. But the town isn't real enough to have this kind of power — or to turn a woman as steely as Susan into a sap.

Production companies: Colleen Camp, MTAF, White Knight
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Sophie Lowe, Johnny Knoxville, Austin Hebert, Thora Birch, Karl Glusman
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenwriter: Chris Gerolmo
Producers: Colleen Camp, Tim Degraye, Mohamed AlRafi
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Costume designer: Nancy Collini
Editor: Martin Nicholson
Composer: Dickon Hinchliffe
Casting directors: Jackie Burch, Samy Burch

R, 104 minutes