Those mixed REVIEWS FOR ‘ABOVE SUSPICION’

By JOE SHARKEY

The Romans purportedly had a phrase, “De gustibus non est disputandum,” which means, roughly, there is no disputing matters of taste.

Actually, the phrase seems to have been coined by medieval classicists attributing an adage to the ancient Romans. Whatever, it occurs to me as I read the initial wave of decidedly mixed reviews for “Above Suspicion,” the movie, which was released last week in the United States.

There have been some very positive reviews in a few established publications and a few credible online sites. But there have been some very poor ones just below the surface, and some of them are downright nasty. Who knew there were so many relatively unknown online entertainment sites that publish movie reviews by amateur freelance critics on $200-a-pop gigs?

First, let’s hear from the major critics who have weighed in so far, keeping in mind 1. that the movie — long delayed by the pandemic and before that by a crazy release itinerary — was finally released by Lionsgate, and opened a few days ago at a fairly small number of theaters that have come back in business as Covid-pandemic ease a bit on public gatherings, and 2. that the movie has just started streaming on Amazon Prime and other online venues, and will not be available on DVD and BluRay till Tuesday (May 18).

Of the major outlets, Deadline came out last week with a review by its highly regarded chief film critic Pete Hammond that made anyone associated with “Above Suspicion” reasonably happy. Hammond calls it a “noirish Southern-fried crime thriller” that is “the kind of film that studios used to turn out but now seems in short supply.” The director Phillip Noyce “who has navigated material like this before — particularly in the sizzling Dead Calm, which starred Nicole Kidman — has captured the feel of a coal-driven small community and the darkness lying beneath the surface.

“Shot in the area in which the real story took place in 1988 and ’89, Above Suspicion benefits from a strong dose of authenticity anchored by a revelatory performance from [Emilia] Clarke, who nails the demeanor and accent of a doomed soul trying to escape a beaten life. The star’s Game of Thrones fans might find her virtually unrecognizable here, but it is a thoroughly accomplished performance.”

As the rookie FBI agent who hires her as his informer, and ultimately kills her, Clarke’s co-star Jack Huston “hits all the right notes as a young family man trying to move up the ladder of success but finds himself sucked into places he should never have gone,” Hammond writes. “There is a strong supporting cast including Thora Birch as Smith’s beautician sister, Chris Mulkey and others including [Johnny] Knoxville, who nails his role. The fate of the real-life characters, including Putnam, is spelled out during the end credits, so be sure to hang in for that.”

Only a few major publications employing professional film critics have seen fit to do reviews of “Above Suspicion” so far, which is probably attributable to the screwy distribution path that preceded the U.S. opening and took much of the wind out of its sails. The Boston Herald was one that weighed in. Its critic, James Verniere, noted that “Above Suspicion” is the story of “a man and a woman who might have led happy lives, if only they had not met.”

Actually, there was no way young Susan Smith was going to have a happy life. That girl was trapped. “This isn’t a twisty nail-biter,” said Al Horner in Empire Magazine. “It’s a sobering story of a woman deemed disposable. “

A few critics on several of the numerous of online entertainment sites that rushed to take note of “Above Suspicion” scoffed at the accent adopted by Clarke (who is British, and who stayed in hillbilly character throughout the three-month shoot), which they claimed did not sound “southern” enough to them. A few British reviewers were especially clueless in criticizing her accent, missing the point that folks in the eastern Kentucky mountains do not speak with a familiar southern American accent like folks in, say, Raleigh. Verniere got that right, noting that Clarke was “armed with a musical Kentucky accent.” That is, she used the appropriate Appalachian English dialect for the part, and anyone who knows a dang thing about how people talk in them hills says that Emilia nailed it good.

Verniere: “Above Suspicion might be described as a little bit ‘Postman Always Rings Twice’ and a little bit ‘Kiss Me Deadly.’ Clarke turns [Susan Smith] into a memorable and, in spite of her sins, even likable femme fatale. … Clarke’s Appalachian junkie enchantress steals more than just scenes. She steals the movie.”

That was certainly my reading of Clarke’s wonderful (and very hard-working) performance as Susan Smith in this movie while I watched it being shot on location in Harlan, Kentucky, four years ago. Back in the early 1990s, while researching my book on which the movie is based, I had been able to interview all of the real-life people in this sad story — except, of course, Susan Smith, the sassy coal miner’s daughter who was murdered in a crime of passion by the rookie FBI agent Mark Putnam. I told Clarke how I admired the way she artistically brought Susan to life as a troubled, flailing young woman, but also a person with dignity who was unable to escape the traps of her social and physical surroundings. Clarke had really done her homework.

The New York Post’s critic Johnny Oleksinski actually read the book before writing his review of the movie. He has the context down accurately, as a result: “The story is a tragic tale of how one man’s ambition and another woman’s wild infatuation collided with deadly consequences.”

In the book, I present the story of that man and his ambition (I interviewed disgraced former FBI agent Mark Putnam at length in prison, where he was serving time for the murder of Susan Smith). But there is also in this story a strong theme of the two women who were in doomed orbit around him — his wife Kathy (who also spoke to me at length) and his paid informant, Susan Smith. To Susan, Mark was the only man who had ever treated her with respect — until he killed her one night on a dark mountain siding.

Oleksinski is so far alone among the critics in that he picked up on the strange, heartbreaking relationship between Kathy and Susan, who spoke together frequently and at length on the phone in real life. Kathy Putnam was a born helper — you could even say a bit of a meddler — who had no idea that Susan was desperately in love with her husband. Oleksinki writes, “The strange situation became more unhealthy and desperate. Besides the nonstop phone calls, Susan cut her hair short to look like Kathy’s. For Christmas, she bought Putnam expensive running shoes and a Nike shirt — a big no-no for an FBI informant. One day, Smith went looking for Putnam at the courthouse and flashed her breasts at the security guards, seemingly to make him jealous.”

My nonfiction book is 90,000 words and about 400 pages. By contrast, a movie is less than two hours. A typical movie script is about 110 pages, triple spaced, with wide margins. As I jokingly told the skilled screenwriter Chris Gerolmo (he also wrote the brilliant “Mississippi Burning”) , if I had written the screenplay myself and put in everything I wanted from my book, the movie would have been ten hours long. Instead, I was happy just to be a consultant on the shoot.

Two other major U.S. publications — Variety and Hollywood Reporter — did review the movie when it opened in the U.K. last July. In the Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore, a freelance critic, did not much like what he saw, except for Johnny Knoxville as Susan Smith’s brutish ex-husband, and he did not think very much of the mise en scène that director Phillip Noyce took great pains to depict: “Though tech values and supporting performances (especially Knoxville’s) are unimpeachable, ‘Suspicion’ doesn’t conjure its setting as persuasively as some of the other drug-centric rural dramas we’ve seen lately,” he sniffed.

In Variety, Guy Lodge, a London-based freelancer, also had misgivings, sourly likening “Above Suspicion” to “true-crime podcasts (or Netflix documentary series) that garner such widespread public fascination these days.”

Also missing the boat, it seemed to me, was Tim Grierson, the “senior U.S. critic” for the British film magazine Screen Daily. He found the movie “of marginal interest to true-crime fans. although many will suspect that this lukewarm tale of sex, drugs and obsession isn’t worth seeking out.” Of Clarke’s performance, which almost all other critics have raved about, he wrote, “Clarke brings such steeliness to the role that it’s disappointing that the filmmakers eventually reduce her character to being “crazy,” turning ‘Above Suspicion’ into one more obsessive-stalker thriller in which the woman is dismissed as deranged.” He also objected to the “morally dubious characters” in the tragic true story.

*

Some back-story:

The release itinerary of “Above Suspicion,” which I had in recent years been referring to sarcastically as “Beyond Belief,” was thoroughly bungled after it finished production at the start of 2017. In 2019, the movie inexplicably opened without fanfare in theaters in the Middle East, and then drifted for a long time like a ghost ship through the world’s video-streaming seas. To name a few places: Lebanon, Israel, Greece, Germany, Italy, Japan, Australia, Mexico. Bulgaria!  

Finally last July, as I noted earlier, “Above Suspicion” streamed and was available on DVD in Britain — to the surprise of both director and cast, who, amazingly, hadn’t been informed in advance of the opening. In the U.K it generated lukewarm-at-best reviews in a few online movie sites. Some of those reviews were written by critics who, it seemed to me, had no knowledge of the brooding coal-mountain environments of isolated eastern Kentucky where the movie, like the book, was set, and dismissed it as another crime saga in the opioid hellscape of post industrial rural America. Seen that already, some of this bunch shrugged.

And again, I think they miss the point.

Jeffrey Wells thinks so, too. He publishes the savvy Hollywood Elsewhere movie site. He was one of the earliest enthusiasts for “Above Suspicion.” Here’s the link to his post from 2017, in which wrote: “There have been a small handful of films that have portrayed rural boondock types and their tough situations in ways that are honest and real-deal. My top three are John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance,’ Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘Sling Blade’ and Lamont Johnson’s ‘The Last American Hero.’ [‘Above Suspicion’] certainly deserves to stand side-by-side as a peer … Noyce always delivers with clarity and discipline but this is arguably the most arresting forward-thrust action flick he’s done since ‘Clear and Present Danger.’ Plus it boasts a smart, fat-free, pared-down script by ‘Mississippi Burning’s’ Chris Gerolmo; some haunting blue-tinted cinematography by Eliot Davis (‘Out of Sight,’ ‘Twilight’), and some wonderfully concise editing by Martin Nicholson.”

He added,  “Above Suspicion” damn sure feels like an early ’70s film. I can tell you that. I mean that in the most complimentary way you could possibly imagine…”

Wells later did a terrific job explaining the movie’s tangled release before the pandemic sidelined it from a planned U.S. opening last year, when the grown-ups at Lionsgate had finally signed on to rescue the film from inept distribution. In that post, which described the movie as having been “rashly distributed” before Lionsgate came in, Wells quotes the director Phillip Noyce, who was deeply disappointed by the way the release was mishandled, and especially by the fact that when “Above Suspicion” was released in the UK last July, it blindsided the movie’s principals.  Wells wrote: “Emilia Clarke, who is rightly proud of her performance as the murdered FBI informant Susan Smith, and would have granted interviews to generate interest, was never even told about the British streaming release” until a few days beforehand.

More recently, Wells takes what I regard as a well-aimed shot at some of the new online critics who have lambasted “Above Suspicion” since it opened in the U.S. in early May. Those reviews were soon assembled on Rotten Tomatoes into dismal ratings of a mere 29 percent positive for professional critics and 47 percent positive for general audience scores. Incidentally, it’s interesting to me that that the 29 percent rating from known critics is based on a scant 35 total reviews, but only seven of them are classified as being from “top critics,” and two of those are positive. Do the math.

In a new post last week, Wells says that “Above Suspicion” so far has been “unfairly backhanded” by its critics, many of whom didn’t understand it. He wrote, “Some simply haven’t liked it — fine. Others may have problems with the social-cultural elements. Critics often give passes to mediocre films because of certain political element. A story about a desperately unhappy trailer-trash wife losing her bearings and getting dumped by her FBI lover doesn’t exactly scream ‘Seal of Good Wokeness” or ‘MeToo-Approved.’ Some critics may also have a problem with a film reflecting the values of rural rightwing backwater types. Most critics will deny it, but they know there are some films they can’t pan, while there’s no downside to slamming a film like ‘Above Suspicion’ Do the math.”

He added, that “Above Suspicion” is “about real people, tough decisions, yokel culture, corruption, Percosets, hot car-sex, and lemme ooutta here. There’s no sense of 21st Century corporate wankery. Adults who believe in real movies made this thing, and they did so with an eye for tension and inevitable plot-turns and fates dictated by character and anxiety and, this being rural Kentucky, bad karma and bad luck”

I spent quite a lot of time and got to know a lot of people in eastern Kentucky when I was researching the book “Above Suspicion” in 1992, and again after the movie shoot in 2016 to do the revised edition published in 2017 by Open Road Media. I was acutely aware that outsiders have long exploited a hillbilly stereotype. The true story of “Above Suspicion” was set in Pikeville and the gnarly mountain environs stretching to the Tug River on the West Virginia border, where the legendary Hatfield McCoy feud played out from 1863 to around 1891, and was the unfortunate inspiration for generations of cultural derision based on glib and long-lived media stereotypes of those fightin,’, drinkin,’ confounding hillbillies.

In researching the book, I worked to understand the complex cultural realities of an isolated, stubbornly independent eastern Kentucky folk’s historical struggles to negotiate exploitation by those rapacious outside interests. Meanwhile, for a month before the movie began shooting in the old eastern Kentucky coal-mine town of Harlan, Kentucky, the director Phillip Noyce and a location scout drove those twisting mountain roads, stopping to talk to people and take in the settings – because Noyce firmly  insisted on getting “place” right in his movie.

On location during the shoot, Emilia Clarke told me that she’d read the book several times, and I know she also plowed through dozens of pages of transcripts and my research notes in her determination to understand the sad dead girl she was playing. Jack Huston also dug into his part as a rookie FBI agent, and Jim Huggins, a smart retired FBI supervisor from Kentucky who had led an FBI team that finally finished up the actual case in 1990, worked closely with an eager Huston on realistically interpreting his part.

So let’s say this movie was made with care. There was nothing cheap or tawdry about its making.

That, of course, is not how it has been sometimes seen within the unfortunately growing genre of journalism snottiness. In a review last week in a 18,000-circulation Gate House Media/Gannett paper near Boston called MetroWest Daily News, a freelance critic named Ed Symkus scolded “Above Suspicion” as “an unpleasant, tawdry film that features a parade of odious characters” in which “pretty much everyone has streaks of immorality or stupidity” in a town that Symkus mistakenly refers to – twice – not as the correct actual town of Pikeville, Kentucky, but as “Pineville.” Symkus even hates Emilia Clarke’s universally hailed tragic Susan Smith as a “hot-tempered, drug addled, sex-starved piece of white trash.”

Or consider this from the somewhat more credible RogerEbert.com, where critic Brian Tallerico sneered last week of “Above Suspicion:” The whole project has a sense of ‘hillbilly dress-up’ not unlike a certain divisive Ron Howard film of last year. And like that film, I never bought that any of these people were real.” 

He went on, “The characters of ‘Above Suspicion’ are not quite hillbilly caricatures but they verge so closely to them that you can see overqualified actors like Clarke struggling against the superficial script and filmmaking choices. Smith’s story is one of violence and broken dreams, one in which she replaced one garbage male with another who she thought was at the other end of the social spectrum but turned out to be just as awful.”

By the way, literally everybody I know who has seen this movie liked it, and some said they liked it enormously.

Oh well, as the ancient Romans said — or was it those medieval classicists putting dialogue in the ancient Romans’ script: De gustibus non est disputandum.

##

2 comments

  1. I just saw the film and read your book. I have been aware of this case for many years because I am John Paul Runyon’s niece.
    Both the movie and the book have given me a lot to think about. For some of us, this story is haunting. It’s one that weighs on your mind for days.
    You have written the definitive book on the case.
    I was interested in what the book and the movie had to say not just about the story but also about the area and Pike Co people. I am aware that we have been exploited and looked down upon by others outside the region since the first settlers came into the Big Sandy Valley.
    But I appreciate your objectivity about the area and mountain people. You were not judgmental or condescending. You seemed to care enough to try to understand the culture and the people—and to have some sympathy for the many disadvantaged people in the region.
    Of course, I also wanted to see what both the movie and book had to say about my Uncle John Paul and his involvement. I was sorry the movie left out his role and gave the entire denouement to the FBI in DC. But I understand the time limitations of the movie.
    But you covered him and his role very well in your book and I soaked up every word about how he negotiated Putnam’s confession, plea and sentencing. I think John Paul played that interaction brilliantly and with courage. He wanted Putnam to have a significant sentence, though he believed her killing was not intentional. He was also calculating the political damage to himself if he failed. What a delicate, tense situation he mastered!
    John Paul served about 36 years as Pike Co Prosecutor. His dad (and my grandfather), served in the position for 20 years. They were both powerful players in the KY Democrat Party with their influence reaching statewide.
    How I miss them both.
    You mentioned the Hatfields and McCoys several times. Did you know that John Paul and I are also McCoy descendants? John Paul’s mother was a McCoy. Our ancestor is a first cousin to Randal McCoy (the McCoy feud leader) and to his wife, Sarah. (Yes, they were first cousins).
    I appreciate your extensive research about the area and the people who were involved. You were fair and objective. But you also saw the pathos of the region and of these two people who’s entanglement brought so much destruction to themselves and others.
    The story is Shakespearean. You have all the components of a tragedy with the brooding setting, the complex players, ambition, betrayal, envy, sex and our common fragile humanity—all resulting in a tragic ending not only for the principals, but for others in their orbits.
    Maybe that’s how you saw it, too, and why you wanted to tell the story.
    Well, you did a good job of it, Mr. Sharkey, and I appreciate your efforts to tell the story well as well as impartially and fairly.
    I wish you well and thank you!
    Lyda Phillips
    409 Shelby St.
    Frankfort, KY
    859-240-2319

    1. Dear Ms. Phillips: Many thanks for your gracious and eloquent note about my book. I recall with such fondness your uncle John Paul Runyon, and the careful, savvy way in which he negotiated that hot potato of a case, even though he knew he was going to get some criticism for it no matter what he did. It was so skillful, how he managed that. And what a gentleman, too.
      It was such a complex, tragic story all around. I told the screenwriter Chris Gerolmo that if the movie had in it everything I thought it might include from the book, it would have been a nine-hour film! I think Chris, Phillip Noyce, and Emilia all did spectacular work. Not to mention Johnny Knoxville, who was a great guy that I expect your uncle would have liked.
      All best, Joe

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