by Rob DiCristino
Here’s the thing about Emilia Clarke: She’s always been better than Game of Thrones. Over eight seasons playing the arch, uncompromising Daenerys Targaryen, Clarke became synonymous with a kind of entitled poise, a pint-sized badassery that made her both fearsome and admirable. Dany is cold, tough, and aloof, often unable to reconcile her human vulnerabilities with her destiny as the liberator of entire civilizations. It’s a good part (though not as good as Book Dany, if we’re getting nerdy about it), but it often required little more from Clarke than looking resolute or standing near a spot where CGI dragons would eventually be painted. As Game of Thrones wound to a close, Clarke began a familiar Hollywood shuffle: Who would we decide she is, and for how long? She stuck with genre for a bit, playing Sarah Connor in the incoherent Terminator: Genisys and — hang on, let me look it up — “Qi’ra” in Solo: A Star Wars Story. They were thankless parts, and they didn’t feel genuine to her.
Based on the real-life 1989 murder of Susan Smith, Above Suspicion is an airport paperback writ large, a Lifetime Channel Original without commercial breaks. As Smith, Clarke opens things Sunset Boulevard style, narrating from the afterlife through a wry smile and a thick Dixie accent that makes it clear things are going to go very wrong very fast. She introduces her hopeless life and the hopeless people in it — ex-husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville), brother Bones (Luke Spencer Roberts), and a handful of other redneck reprobates living on a steady cocktail of opiates and economic insecurity. In the fallow periods between dealing drugs and committing welfare fraud, Smith dreams that she and her two malnourished children might one day escape this nowhere town. That opportunity arrives in the form of FBI Agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston), a hotshot Yankee looking to make a name for himself in the Bureau. Smith knows where the bodies are buried, so she offers herself up as an informant.
Journeyman director Phillip Noyce crafts Above Suspicion’s visuals to match its tawdry story: The bleach bypass and canted angles are in full effect, as is the trailer rock soundtrack and hand-cranked cocaine trips. Were it not for its famous lead and a touch too much gloss, it might have been a solid piece of Hicksploitation. It’s a trashy story about trashy people, and Noyce has the good sense to heighten the presentation in a way that ensures we never take any of it too seriously. Knoxville makes for a reliable junkie ex-husband, and a straggly Kevin Dunn makes an appearance alongside a permed Thora Birch. The only real weak link is Putnam — not necessarily Huston’s performance, but his overall depiction. He’s not a sympathetic man, and the movie doesn’t want us to like him, but Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay might have at least given him texture enough to justify his irresponsible actions. Then again, this is Smith’s story, so his function as a means to an end may have been intentional.