Movie Review: Above Suspicion
Emilia Clarke ditches the dragons and thrones to pick up a hillbilly accent and a horny FBI agent in Phillip Noyce’s cautionary tale that explores ego, power and two people with a pathetic desire to control each other.
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston,
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
Now streaming on demand
By Katherine Monk
Remember a movie called Dead Calm? If you happened to catch that thriller back in 1989, there’s little chance you’d forget a single frame. Not only did it introduce us to a young Nicole Kidman, it featured the creepiest performance to date from Billy Zane as he played a sociopath on a sinking yacht.
Dead Calm remains one of the scariest movies around, and for that, we can thank Australian director Philip Noyce. Noyce knows how to whittle tension from even the chunkiest and clunkiest of material, and his skills behind the camera salvage the cinematic dumpster fire called Above Suspicion.
Based on a true story that saw a federal agent convicted of murder, this reel stars Game of Thrones’ dragon queen Emilia Clarke as an informant named Susan Smith, and Jack Huston as Mark — the pleasant-faced FBI guy who wants to climb the agency ladder, only to step on the snake of seduction — and suffer an epic fall.
Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything by suggesting the larger arc of the story. The minute the movie begins, we hear Clarke’s voice-over. It’s a mix of smokey drawl and soft consonants that conjures nothing but Southern Gothic, and it’s narrating a tale from from the other side of the grave. Susan’s disembodied voice says “the problem with being dead is it gives you too much time to think…” — and so the story begins as a long series of Lovely Bones-like flashbacks.
We see Susan in her faded prime: a mother with a drug problem and an ex-husband who keeps this small town on a tight leash of addiction. She tells us the only people who can still make money are undertakers and drug dealers, and everyone else just does “what they gotta do” to survive. A beat later, she offers the caveat: “but it changes you… little by little.”
From there, we wind back time to when Mark first comes to town, a fresh-faced agent looking to make a name for himself by solving a big case. For Susan, his clean-cut features and big city swagger make him a new cake in the window, and she wants a piece. For Susan, it’s really all about her — all the time. She has needs, and she’s willing to lie, co-opt and scheme to get her way. She uses all her feminine wiles and despite Mark’s best intentions, he succumbs.
The two get lost in a runaway romance, shuddering in spasms of pleasure as the tracks grow more serpentine — and the locomotive of the law chugs in the opposite direction. They’re heading for disaster, but by the time Mark tries to separate his car from Susan’s, the train has already derailed. Susan is such a narcissist in need of affirmation and ownership, she goes so far as to seduce Mark while he’s in bed with his wife. It’s repulsive and creepy, and as a viewer, it’s often hard to grasp why Mark crumples to this manipulative siren that successfully fuses the hillbilly ingenue of a Miley Cyrus with the timeless vengeance of a Medusa. Sure, it’s about the thrill of the sex, but it’s also about the desire for power — particularly how disenfranchised, jealous losers will do their best to intimidate their rivals in a bid to feel bigger than, better than, the pathetic souls they know themselves to be.
Sure, it’s about the thrill of the sex, but it’s also about the desire for power — particularly how disenfranchised, jealous losers will do their best to intimidate their rivals in a bid to feel bigger than, better than, the pathetic souls they know themselves to be.
It’s all the ingredients of a Bronte novel, only delivered with all the twang and white trash cliche of a Dukes of Hazzard episode. It’s not the best mix, and while watching Clarke play hillbilly wench opposite the clean cut Huston offers ample spectacle, Above Suspicion gets stuck in the muddy ruts of crime movie formula.
The plot wheels start spinning by the halfway point as we see through the denouement and wait for it to unfold, because our dead narrator has already told us what’s going to happen. It’s an awkward device, as voice-overs often are, but it also features a few killer lines that go straight down truth boulevard, such as “Show me a man who’s working all the time, and I’ll show you the woman he’s trying to avoid.” These snarky asides help us dissociate from the character, who may be dead, but remains largely unlikable despite being a victim. The problem with Susan is a failure to evolve, and a greedy need to take what she wants — regardless of the consequences — just to feel important, even for the briefest of moments.
“I’m gonna be a star witness… I’m an important informant….” she’s so tediously self-absorbed, she’d be loathsome if Mark weren’t equally immersed in his own ego. They’re both ugly and irredeemable in their own ways, but Noyce is able to keep us watching because even if we know the final destination, he keeps clipping his characters with the momentum of their own actions. He makes them spin and stagger, seek safety on the shoulder, then he splatters them onto the broken pavement of their self-created fate.
They’re both ugly and irredeemable in their own ways, but Noyce is able to keep us watching because even if we know the final destination, he keeps clipping his characters with the momentum of their own actions.
There’s something mildly satisfying about watching karma take its toll on the morally lazy and money-motivated mooches out there, especially when they brought it all on themselves. But Above Suspicion can’t raise itself from the bog of viewer ambivalence because at the end of the day, watching two selfish losers make a bed of evil, and roll around in it for a cheap thrills, feels altogether banal, and boring because selfish losers have no imagination, no poetry and no desire to connect to the larger world around them.
THE EX-PRESS, March 19, 2021
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