Above Suspicion: Impersonal Elegy, by David Bax
Look, I’ll confess. I didn’t see Hillbilly Elegy. I know, I know, it was nominated for a goddamn Oscar and everything but something told me maybe I ought to skip it. If that movie is even half as patronizing toward the rural poor as Phillip Noyce’s Above Suspicion is, though, I’m pleased with my decision. The most prominent signifier of the movie’s cluelessness is the repeated use of the singular “y’all,” a usage that only really exists in the minds of non-Southerners trying to talk like Southerners. And when the screenplay isn’t making that mistake, it’s cramming words like “whilst” and “et” as the past tense of eat into Emilia Clarke’s mouth like this is fucking Deadwood.
Above Suspicion is based on the true story of a Kentucky woman named Susan Smith (Clarke) who was a paid informant to a young FBI Agent named Mark Putnam (Jack Huston). The two had an affair and then, after she became pregnant, he killed her. Putnam was the first FBI agent to be convicted of murder.
Clarke and Huston are talented enough that they ought to be able to keep this thing afloat on their own. That’s not even mentioning the roster of reliable character actors (Omar Benson Miller, Chris Mulkey, Kevin Dunn, Thora Birch, Karl Glusman), up and comers (Blow the Man Down‘s Sophie Lowe) and left field surprises (Johnny Knoxville). When a cast this good is this uniformly bad, the fault must lie with the director.
It’s not as if Noyce and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo (adapting Joe Sharkey’s book) don’t understand the story underneath the story here. Susan’s unwillingness to let go of the feeling of approval and validity she got from her multifaceted relationship with Putnam, the way a respected guy who’s done demonstrably bad things can convince himself that he’s the real victim… It’s all there. It’s just that Above Suspicion stands at too far a remove from these people and this place to make it feel like anything but condescension.
That sense of disdain extends to the unpleasant aesthetics of the film, which looks as if Noyce preceded every “Action!” with, “We’ve got the Somber Blue filter on, right?” Then, after production, he made sure to run every scene where Susan gets high through some jittery After Effects preset.
Even if you didn’t know the true story, it’s not a spoiler to reveal Susan’s death since the character narrates the whole movie from beyond the grave, a trope that already felt like a cheap ploy for profundity twenty years ago in American Beauty. And if you still didn’t know it was true by the time the credits roll, Above Suspicion tacks on an archival interview with the real Putnam at the end. Whether that’s a “See?! It really happened like this!” bit of ass-covering or a misguided attempt to let the murderer tell his side of the story, it’s a fittingly sour note on which to close this whole trying ordeal of a movie.