Movie Review: Emilia Clarke goes Hillbilly Femme Fatale in “Above Suspicion”

Southern drawls lure English actors like soccer hooligans hunting for that next warm beer.

And truth be told, when “Game of Thrones” siren Emilia Clarke trots out her Kentucky/Appalachian accent out in “Above Suspicion,” I have to say, I was intrigued.

“The worst thang about bein’ dead, you got too much t’ahm t’thank.

OK, that’s a mild exaggeration. Granted, she hits words like “et” entirely too hard when she’s barking out “The kids ain’t et,” and either her or her screenwriter figure “whilst” was never abandoned by the single-wide/dirt-poor Scots-Irish of Appalachia whilst I would beg to differ.

But otherwise, Clarke seems right at home in this Hillbilly Heroin Gothic tale of criminals, spreading despair, an over-eager FBI agent and the local vamp who figures she can snitch and sex her way out of a the holler she’s trapped in.

Clarke plays Susan Smith, a Pikeville, Kentucky local who narrates her story from the grave. She was there — in 1988 — when mining finally coughed up its last coal dust and the town turned to pot — and oxy and coke and bank robbing.

It’s the bank robbing that perplexes the Feds. Pikeville has an FBI office largely because a lot of unemployed good ol’boys are taking their chances on robbing the teeny, tiny penny-ante banks scattered through the mountains and hills.

“I guess even the banks around here are broke,” Susan quips. She’s divorced, with two kids she gives barely a thought to, living in the same house with her ex,Cash (Johnny Knoxville) and “perpetuating fraud,” collecting welfare checks from two states — West Virginia and Kentucky.

She splits the money with Cash, who makes his real “living” selling drugs. But their dump of a home is big enough to harbor a fugitive or two, such as her younger brother — who ends a bar fight by shooting the other fellow in the parking lot.

But Susan has her eye on bigger things and better days. “All I ever wanted to do was get out of Pikeville,” where there are just two ways to make money — “the funeral business, and sellin’ drugs.” Her escape route appears in the handsome new FBI agent Mark Putnam, who looks “like he stepped out of a magazine,” aka like hunky Jack Huston.

Forget that he’s married with a new baby. Hell, she’s forgotten her own kids, more or less. She sets herself up to be “useful” to him. And that includes snitching on people under her own roof.

There’s a myopia about Susan that fits her MO to a T. She’s an addict, not a wasting-away, pale and gaunt meth-mouthed mess, but she loves her cocaine. Her focus is on herself — her wants, her needs and her rewards. And Clarke, treated to every flattering close-up in director Philip Noyce’s (“Salt,” “Catch a Fire,” “The Giver”) arsenal, devours the poor family man, and any other man she needs something from, with just a look.

As she gets in deeper and the double-crosses start to add up, we start to wonder how she winds up the way she narrates in that opening scene — dead.

I never got into “Game of Thrones,” but it was obvious in the romantic comedies people have tried to put her into (“Me Before You,” “Last Christmas”) that cute, bittersweet romances weren’t Clarke’s forte. “Above Suspicion,” whatever its problems, gives her a role to sink her teeth into, and she’s damned credible in it.

Being a “true story,” there’s a clumsiness to its “fact-based” obsession with, for instance, locales. The narrative is often interrupted by graphics denoting where this robbery or that arrest or “safe house” is located. The story doesn’t have a rhythm to it.

But the under-filmed milieu is riveting, a dead-end world or shuttering stores, decaying houses and lives that turn into traps so slowly you don’t see it happening.

One day, you’re blithely helping the coal companies cut the tops off your mountains (an abandoned mine is one place Susan has her “meetings” with Jack). The next, the company’s gone, the town’s dead and they didn’t even leave you with clean water, gorgeous scenery or educated kids when they skedaddled.

Thanks, Mitch.

Huston — the most recent “Ben-Hur” — gives Putnam the furtive eyes of a late-starter FBI field agent out to do whatever it takes to get promoted out of this dump. He recognizes a fellow striver in local deputy McCoy (Austin Hébert, quite good), who “got that family habit of holding a grudge” and who takes bank robbing personally.

Putnam sees man-eater Susan coming, but “crosses that line” for a shopping list of reasons, every one of them believable.

Knoxville, as he often proves in films set in his native habitat, brings a hardened-by-life authenticity to Cash.

Sophie Lowe, playing the “she HAS to know” wife that Putnam is cheating on, gives her character an earthy “Please don’t steal my man” mystery.

And the presence of Thora Birch, Omar Benson Miller, Chris Mulkey, Kevin Dunn and Karl Glusman hint at an ambition and allure (to actors) that the finished film doesn’t quite measure up to.

Unless you’re Billy Wilder making “Sunset Boulevard,” that “narrating from the grave” thing spoils the mystery and saddles your picture with more voice-over than “suspending disbelief” and losing yourself in the movie will allow.

Screenwriter Chris Gerolmo wrote “Mississippi Burning,” and co-created the combat series “Over There.” “Above Suspicion” has a similar choppy, violent vignettes quality. But Noyce isn’t able to turn this into a seamless, immersive film that makes you forget we’re watching a pieced-together story.

This halfway-there thriller still makes an excellent showcase for Emilia Clarke, shedding whatever “Game of Thrones” baggage she has left and hinting at the dangerous places she might yet take us.

MPA Rating: R for sexual content and drug use throughout, language and some strong violence 

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Sophie Lowe, Thora Birch, Karl Glusman, Kevin Dunn and Johnny Knoxville

Credits: Directed by Philip Noyce, script Chris Gerolmo, based on a non-fiction book by Joe Sharkey. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:46

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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