“ABOVE SUSPICION” MOVIE REVIEW

Emily Clarke of “Game of Thrones” doesn’t tangle with dragons in director Philip Noyce’s “Above Suspicion” (*** OUT OF ****), a tawdry but true-life tale about a young FBI agent and his ill-fated affair with a welfare scamming drug informant. Susan Smith (Emily Clarke) had reached the point of no return in her illicit relationship with Agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston of “Antebellum”) when she threatened to tell the Bureau about his sexually promiscuous behavior.

“Mississippi Burning” scribe Chris Gerolmo adapted New York Times reporter Joe Sharkey’s non-fiction expose “Above Suspicion,” a chronicle about crime and corruption in rural Kentucky. Actually, former Fox News reporter Aphrodite Jones beat Sharkey to the punch with the first book “The FBI Killer” (1992) about the notorious Smith & Putnam affair.

Sharkey’s book hit the racks a year after Jones’ tome. Noyce and Gerolmo have dramatized this seminal Southern Gothic saga about the first FBI agent convicted of felony manslaughter in the murder of a pregnant underworld informant. Surprisingly, records show Putnam served only ten years of his 16-year prison sentence before his good behavior earned him his freedom. In 2000, authorities released Putnam from prison.

In 1998, his first wife Kelly had died from acute alcoholism in while he was still doing time. According to the most recent reports, Putnam resides in Georgia, has remarried, and earns a living as a physical trainer. Although this chapter in rogue law enforcement is history, Noyce gets additional mileage out of its sordid, soap operatic situations.

Watching British actress Clarke transform herself into a slutty, naive temptress is amazing. Unless you’ve lived in that part of Kentucky, specifically Pikeville, you wouldn’t recognize Clarke as she delivers a persuasive performance as Susan Smith. Clearly, neither the aspiring young Federal agent nor our sexy siren had the least clue about the repercussions of their relationship.

Director Philip Noyce and scenarist Chris Gerolmo appropriate a macabre narrative gimmick from Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) where the protagonist from beyond the grave narrates the action while his corpse bobs head down in a swimming pool. “Above Suspicion” unfolds with a deceased Susan Smith furnishing a voice-over commentary that drips with sarcasm.

“You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think.” The road to Hades here was paved with good intentions. Susan grew up in small town Kentucky, married an abusive drug dealer, Cash (Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass: The Movie”), bore him two kids, then divorced him. By this time, Susan had become hopelessly addicted to cocaine.

Although she lived with Cash in his trailer, she no longer slept with the dastard. Susan dreams of starting over, cleaning up her life, and leaving Cash. She has set her sights on a life far removed from one of eternal hardship. She gets her chance when a serial bank robber runs circles around the local constabulary.

Randy McCoy (newcomer Austin Hébert) steals himself some wheels, careens up to a bank, storms inside wearing a ski mask, and flaunts a double-barreled shotgun. He doesn’t dawdle as he grabs the loot. As it turns out, Randy hasn’t been out of the hoosegow long himself. Moreover, Cash lets Randy and his gal sack out in his mobile home.

Randy has made himself a royal nuisance when the Federal Bureau of Investigation stations a new agent at Pikesville, Mark Putnam, to replace their retiring agent, Todd Eason (Chris Mulkey of “Captain Phillips”), who has six months left on the job.

The moment Susan sets her eyes on Mark when he arrives in Pikeville, she sees a promising future for herself. Susan flirts with him about being a paid informant, and she clues him in about Randy. Susan felt this was her ticket out because she could acquire more money this way than working at a 9 to 5 job. Basically, she turned stool pigeon and entered the Witness Relocation Program for Agent Putnam. In truth, at least in this version of her life, Susan not only sought the added revenue, but she also wanted to replace Putnam’s wife.

They rendezvous at a local motel, and Mark’s wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe of “Autumn Blood”) initially suspects nothing. One night Mark comes home from a bust, and Kathy notices bite marks on his cheek. When Mark prepares to bust a major cannabis smuggler, Rufus Green (Brian Lee Franklin of “Godless”), Susan realizes to her chagrin that he has relegated her to a back burner.

Jealously, she warns Rufus about the impending bust. Predictably, Mark blows a gasket. Nevertheless, he racks up enough arrests to get reassigned to the Chicago FBI Office. Susan drops the bomb that she is pregnant with Mark’s child. Secluded deep in the woods, they argue about an abortion, and then Mark beats her to a pulp. Ten months elapse before Putnam finally confesses. Ultimately, the search parties recovered only a third of Susan’s badly gnawed bones. Animals had feasted ravenously on her remains.

Although his most popular films came out between 1989 and 2010, “Above Suspicion” marks a return to form for Noyce. He cast Rutger Hauer as a handicapped swordsman in the cult favorite “Blind Fury” (1989). He helmed the first two Jack Ryan espionage thrillers, “Patriot Games” (1992) and “A Clear and Present Danger” (1994), both based on Tom Clancy’s bestsellers, with Harrison Ford. Later, he directed Denzel Washington in “The Bone Collector” (1999) and then Angelina Jolie in “Salt” (2010).

Noyce and Gerolmo never let the action bog down in real-life details. Emily Clarke evokes the desperation of a small-town girl yearning for redemption, while Huston captures the youthful zeal of Mark Putnam. The real-life Putnam appears during the end credits in a televised interview, but he acts like he has buried the past. Noyce and lenser Elliot Davis capture the atmosphere of Kentucky in the late 198o’s with reasonable authenticity. Originally, “Above Suspicion” was scheduled to open in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the film’s release until about a month ago.

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