The 1989 murder of Susan Smith is a despairingly grim Southern Gothic story, shot through with reckless sex, institutional corruption and Kentucky-fried local scandal: prime material for the kind of forensic, heavily extended true-crime podcasts (or Netflix-style documentary series) that garner such widespread public fascination these days. At least “Above Suspicion,” a steamed-up, sweat-soaked film adaptation of the material, mercifully rakes over its unsavory details in two hours rather than several. It’s quick, dirty and perhaps more tawdry than it needs to be: There may not be much dignity to be scrounged from the tale of a naive, drug-addicted FBI informant who sleeps with — and is subsequently killed by — her supervising agent, but Chris Gerolmo’s script isn’t at great pains to find the human factor here, and Phillip Noyce’s direction coats the whole unhappy affair in cold blue steel.
What it does have is Emilia Clarke. Not the first name you’d think of to play a downtrodden deadbeat from Pikeville, Ky., the erstwhile Daenerys Targaryen gives Susan Smith a hard, gleaming specificity that the writing sometimes lacks, and manages a creditable bluegrass twang. Her performance is the principal audience hook for a lurid, generically titled downer that has taken its time to reach screens following production in 2017. After a gradual international rollout, “Above Suspicion” was released directly to VOD platforms in the U.K. on July 13; a similar unveiling Stateside likely awaits. Acolytes of veteran genre ace Noyce are likely to find his latest a comfier fit than his last feature, 2014’s miscalculated Lois Lowry adaptation “The Giver,” but several rungs short of his most briskly stylish work.
“You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think.” So drawls Clarke’s Susan in the film’s opening moments, cuing a running voiceover heavy on droll epithets, granting the narrator a sort of homespun-yet-omniscient wisdom that she couldn’t have had in real life. The “Sunset Boulevard”-by-way-of-“Gone Girl” tone struck at the outset makes clear that Gerolmo — adapting a book by former New York Times journo Joe Sharkey — and Noyce aren’t after the stoic docudrama brand of true-crime storytelling. Still, the ensuing film is shy of committing either to its rural noir trappings or its hovering air of mordant black comedy. With suspense, from that opening salvo onward, also out of the question, it’s a steady, unsparing march into the abyss.
It’s left to the glimmers of girlish good humor in Clarke’s performance to suggest what other, better life might have awaited Susan had she not been born, under-loved and under-protected, into mining-town hardship, had she not married abusive drug dealer Cash (Johnny Knoxville, effectively stunt-cast) in her teens, and had she not continued living under his roof after their acrimonious divorce. A flinty relationship with her beautician sister (an underused Thora Birch) fills only a few colors into her backstory. Yet the film’s on-location Kentucky shooting, combined with Dickon Hinchliffe’s stark, plucked-strings score (reminiscent of his own work on “Winter’s Bone”), nails down a suitably oppressive sense of place, and of space closing in.
By the time we meet Susan, aged 26 and with enough hard knocks under her belt for twice that number, it’s small wonder that she’ll fall for the first man to show her some semblance of kindness — which just happens to be clean-cut FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston), new in town to track down a local serial bank robber. After a drug bust at Cash and Susan’s grimy home, Mark persuades her to snitch on Pikeville’s underworld; soon enough, they’re embroiled in a torrid, disaster-bound affair to which Mark’s gentle-natured wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) can’t be entirely oblivious. An actor whose fresh-faced demeanor often implies darker impulses, Huston is well cast as Susan’s spotless-but-slippery exploiter, though we’re kept at a glassy remove from his inner life throughout.
We hardly need Susan’s beyond-the-grave narration, nor the relentless blue-filtered balefulness of Elliot Davis’ lensing, to tell us that nothing here can end well: What morbid pull the film has lies in seeing just how tightly its lovers can corner themselves into their own mutual trap. As such, it’s not dull, living up to the grabby, spoilers-upfront headline value of its “Fed murders informant” premise. But it’s never emotionally involving either, not least because, despite Clarke’s gumption, there’s little connective character tissue between Susan the spiraling victim and Susan the world-weary narrator of her own demise. Like many a paradoxical true-crime entertainment, “Above Suspicion” has scarcely more than a tabloid’s passing interest in the life behind the death.