Directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Rabbit-Proof Fence), Above Suspicion is a fast-paced thriller based on the true story of a young Kentucky woman, Susan Smith (Emilia Clark), who becomes an up-and-coming FBI agent’s star informant.
While Clark’s performance is commendable, Above Suspicion feels a bit like watching an extended re-enactment scene from a late 90’s true crime documentary. This is not a result of the cinematography or editing (which is adequate, if formulaic), but a side-effect of the film’s reluctance to openly and explicitly critique the FBI. Any viewer with a critical eye will be able to see plainly that Susan’s problems stem from the systemic oppression of working-class women and the war on drugs. In light of this, it is difficult to see her affair with FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) as a relationship between equals. Instead, Putnam’s actions read as exploitative and abusive – but I did not get the impression that the film intended for me to have such a clearly negative reaction to the character.
The script doesn’t dwell on the emotional connection between Susan and Putnam, opting instead to cover as much plot and action as possible in the relatively short runtime, and merely suggests that their relationship is built on Susan’s lust and their shared excitement for taking down bad guys. To be frank: I just didn’t buy it. There is so little chemistry between Clark and Huston that the idea of an affair based solely on passion is absurd. Huston’s Putnam is cold and detached, showing a tendency toward blatant manipulation from his very first interaction with Susan. He rarely emotes and it is hard to see what Susan finds appealing about him, besides as an escape out of her current circumstances of addiction and poverty.
I’m all for complex and morally ambiguous characters, but Above Suspicion is ostensibly told from Susan’s perspective. Her voice-over narration appears throughout the film, and it is obvious that it is meant to be her point-of-view that dominates – except that it isn’t. As a bizarre scene near the end of the film makes clear, Susan and Putnam have very different ideas of how events unfolded. The placement of Putnam’s version of the scene before Susan’s implies that the story up until that point has been heavily informed by Putnam’s perspective. Even if we have heard Susan’s voice, we have not really seen her story.
By the time the credits rolled, I still wasn’t clear what kind of story Above Suspicion wanted to be, or even whose story I had watched. Was this meant to be Susan’s version of events? Putnam’s? Were the FBI the villains, or just Putnam himself?
I’m sure that some audiences will enjoy Above Suspicion more than I did. Die hard fans of true crime that are already familiar with this case may find something here to love that escaped my attention. Overall, however, Above Suspicion is a thriller that moves at break-neck speed and demonstrates the breadth and scope of Clark’s considerable talent, but it doesn’t have very much else to offer.
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