“What’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think”
Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) is now back on our screens in the thriller Above Suspicion, directed by Phillip Noyce with the screenplay by Chris Gerolmo. The film is based on the book by Joe Sharkey – the true story of America’s first ever conviction for murder of an FBI agent back in 1988.
Clarke plays Susan Smith, a drug addict and young mother of two who also acts as the film’s narrator, but telling the story from beyond the grave. She is the victim of FBI agent Mark Putnam (played by Jack Huston). This case became a memorable moment in American history and one that should never be forgotten.
Stuck in the small town of Pikeville, Kentucky, “the town that never lets go”, Susan has a secret desire to escape from her poor and unfortunate lifestyle, but finds it hard to do so, as she lives with Cash (played by Johnny Knoxville), her ex-husband, who is an aggressive Coke dealer. After an unexpected incident with Cash and Susan’s younger brother ‘Bones’, (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), she becomes Mark’s informant. Knowing how risky this is for her, she realises that it’s her only option for a better future for herself and her kids – “there are two ways of making money in this town, the funeral business or selling drugs” – Susan unfortunately goes for the latter, which she later regrets. “These people don’t f*** around. They find out you’re a snitch, they burn your house, and that’s just a warning. You keep doing it, they’ll cut out your tongue and feed it to their dog”. You pay a high price for being a ‘snitch’ in Pikeville.
Clarke gives an astounding performance with her thick Kentucky accent and her flare for creating dramatic effect. She naturally brings the character to life, making us forget that she’s playing someone real… far from the pristine Queen she’s used to playing for over a decade. Instead we see the grunge and dirty looking junkie who doesn’t care about getting her hands dirty or throwing a few punches or two in retaliation. In contrast to this, we have Mark Putnam who brings a mixture of things to the table; mystery, darkness, sexiness and an overwhelming sense of power. The instant connection between him and Susan is intense and the sexual tension at first is undeniable. Even though one of the main rules is “never sleep with your informants”, he does so anyway. He’s a rookie with power, having only joined the FBI two weeks previously.
Mark and Susan make for an attractive couple and make ‘one hell of a team’, despite the fact that Mark is a newly-wed with a young baby, and Susan is a drug informant with two kids and living with her coke dealer ex. It’s complicated to say the least, but this is the start of their short-lived affair.
Visually the film is gloomy with the clouds forever dark and stormy. The atmosphere constantly feels heavy, depressing and unsatisfied. Piketown is not a place you would wish to holiday in, yet there is something intriguing about it, although you can’t quite put your finger on it. However, this does contrast with a few scenes where Susan is getting high at home with her ‘friends’ (it’s more like a gang of junkies that have nowhere else to go). The bright warming lights of the house mixed with the close up shots gives a feeling of being in the room with everyone else. The camera angles and effects make you feel vulnerable, as if you’re high as well – feeling dizzy and in slow motion. The shots where you see Susan et al look directly into the camera, therefore directly at you, give you a slight chill. It’s exciting and electrifying, but it’s a shame that it’s limited to those two particular scenes when it could’ve extended throughout to the rest of the film.
An interesting character for me is Kathy Putnam (played by Sophie Lowe). The wife of Mark, from the start she seems prissy and annoying. She constantly acts like she has a stick up her arse and when she meets Susan, is automatically suspicious of her. Sophie Lowe plays Kathy convincingly. As the devoted wife and mother, she seems practically perfect in every way – even when she finds out that her husband is a murderer. She shrugs it off as easily as flicking a piece of fluff off her clothes.
Things turn sour for the ‘couple’ when Mark no longer has use for his informant. He starts a new case and is busier than ever, and then abandons her, leaving Susan heartbroken, devastated and angry. She confronts him and things turn ugly, with Susan left at the mercy of Mark. The scene in which Mark kills Susan is utterly tragic, heartbreaking and violent. “You were gonna save me”, she says to him prior to her death. Instead, her life takes a turn for the worse! Just when she thought Mark Putnam could be her saviour, it turns out he was just the devil in disguise and strangles her to death. The look in her eyes as she takes her last breath gives me goosebumps, a scene I definitely won’t be forgetting in a while.
Above Suspicion is a thought-provoking film where real lives are affected. This can sometimes be forgotten when seen via the medium of a feature film, instead of something like a documentary where the audience is constantly reminded of its intent. The performances by Clarke and Huston are particularly powerful and captivate the audience throughout. Although I’ve given the film 3 stars, it could easily have been a grade higher, if it weren’t for the fact that at times there are scenes that are slightly dull, slow and messy and could potentially lose the interest of the audience as it did so for me.
The storyline is compelling and makes you think more closely about the case. I personally researched more information as soon as the film had ended, wanting to get the full context of what really happened between Susan and Mark. As the credits roll we see the real life Mark Putnam giving an interview about what happened. Seeing a face to the name, and not just an actor playing him, is eye-opening and makes the whole thing more shocking – knowing what this man did in one angry outburst all those years ago.
What I love to hear about when watching any true story, is where they are now and what’s happened since. It’s emotional when reading on the screen where their lives ended up, but it’s a feeling of fulfilment on their behalf – like the closing of a book. I feel we are finally able to put Susan’s case to rest – she now has her story told and it won’t be forgotten. The fact that she herself is narrating her own story after her death, makes it all the more poignant