Susan Smith was a person who lived a tragic life. As a teen in the ’70s, she found herself in a relationship with a Kentucky drug dealer that saw her become embedded in the local drug scene and with numerous addictions in tow. It was in 1987, though, that a young hotshot FBI agent named Mark Putnam came to town on a case where the two crossed paths; Putnam soon turning Smith into an informant. It was a relationship that didn’t take too long to slowly shift away from being professional, soon morphing into being sexual, and then into threats. With the end result being the first time an FBI agent was convicted of murder. Yet even with all this narrative baggage, a film adaptation doesn’t seem possible — the events play out in rather a plain manner. And Above Suspicion shows just that; a film that feels like a putrid Wikipedia page.
Directed by Philip Noyce, the recounting of these events sees both Emilia Clarke and Jack Huston as the aforementioned pair, yet both seem lost whenever they’re onscreen; with each playing the events for only their surface-level qualities. The two might not lean into hillbilly caricatures like so much of the supporting cast around them does, but they don’t escape the fact that they’re overqualified actors working from a mightily superficial script. It all seems lackadaisically both under-directed in a performance standpoint and over-directed in regards to staging anything that might resemble/beg to be tense. Its insipid storytelling that can’t be compensated by anything, which only explains why the film was shot nearly five years ago and delayed multiple times. It’s the kind of project that Clarke and Huston can walk away from and pretend never really happened. But it’s a shame to see Susan Smith’s story as a footnote in their careers. Above Suspicion feels so vaguely conceived from the start that by the time its all said and done, this gaudy and lethargic thriller plays just like the second-rate movie that’s sat on the shelf for ages that it is.
Above Suspicion is available on VOD
The Killing of Two Lovers
In The Killing of Two Lovers, suspense looms. In this film, Hitchcock’s famous example of suspense — a bomb placed beneath a table, its presence known to the viewer but not to the characters on screen — has its explosive device be a human being. In particular, it’s a middle-aged man named David (Clayne Crawford) who’s silently ticking; the film opens with him standing over the bed of a sleeping couple, pointing a pistol at each of them, visibly anguished. Before he can summon the nerve or the will or the evil to fire, a toliet is flushed somewhere in the house, scarring him out the window and down the street, on foot, to what’s eventually revealed to be his childhood home, where he’s temporarily moved back in with his widowed father (Bruce Graham). The woman David pondered murdering turns out to be his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), with whom he has teenage daughter (Avery Pizzuto) and three younger sons (Arri, Ezra, and Jonah Graham). They’re recently separated, and both theoretically free to date others. David’s not handling it well.
What makes The Killing of Two Lovers more than just another tale of toxic testosterone is the extent to which this initial, alarming threat is successionally absorbed by the mundane sorrows and frustrations of a fractured family. The specter of potential violence haunts everything that follows. But, at the same time though, David also just goes about the business of trying to get his life back in order. He cares for their kids, walking the boys to school in the morning and struggling to explain the complexities of adult relationships to his wounded and angry daughter. Direct interactions with Nikki betray no hint of bitterness; they go out on a scheduled date night, wind up parked not far from their house to make sure the kids are okay, and actually laugh together. Remove just a few admittedly crucial minutes from the film’s first hour and it would still be a superlative portrait of a painful split rooted in achingly recognizable confusion and dismay.
Still, we’ve seen what’s churning in David’s head, and there’s the ominous title to consider. In his solo feature debut, writer-director Robert Machoian takes pains to make his protagonist’s behavior comprehensible without excusing it, and to shift between moods without inducing tonal whiplash. Bold choices pay off, seen in Machoian’s use of long-takes. Other stray moments, like a family fascination in Mitch Hedberg’s comedy, feels goofily specific. Ultimately, a movie like this succeeds or fails largely on the strength of its lead actors, and Machoian cast his well. Crawford shrewdly avoids telegraphing David’s violent impulses at times when he’d be carefully suppressing them, which is virtually always; humanizing a potential murderer is tricky business, but his performance conveys credible love and heartbreak without ever seeking to justify his character’s possessiveness. Moafi has to subtly suggest a woman who proposed a trial separation mostly as a means of safely leaving the marriage, but who also still genuinely cares for her husband; and she hits her mark with precision in her minimal screen time. The inevitable confrontation unfolds with such realistic ugliness that it’s difficult to watch (in the right ways), and fulfills expectations while subverting them at the same time. Both fast-moving and slow-burning, The Killing of Two Lovers is steadily sparse but psychologically knotty; a film all about the building anticipation that happens in the in-between moments.
The Killing of Two Lovers is available on VOD