Drugs. Impoverished living. A rundown town where the coal mine has gone dead. FBI corruption. Infidelity. And, of course, murder.
These days chances are good that we're talking about a movie set in the American South.
Above Suspicion, from director Phillip Noyce, tells the real-life story of how, in 1989, a rising FBI star formed a relationship with the seductive informant who helped him build an ascending career.
A spoiler? Not entirely. The movie's ending is revealed in the opening scene, a nod to William Holden's narration in Sunset Boulevard. The narrator of the story, it seems, already is dead.
"You know what's the worst thing about being dead?''the late Susan Smith asks. "You get too much time to think."
Starting the movie at the end leaves us with one major question: How did Susan wind up dead?
Emilia Clarke, familiar from Game of Thrones, portrays the movie's narrator, Susan, a woman living in Pikeville, Ky. Susan has the profile you’d expect in a movie such as this. She lives with but is estranged from her drug-dealing husband (Johnny Knoxville). She's also in the midst of a welfare scam.
Desperate for a change, Susan reads a lot into the sudden arrival in town of FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston). Susan spots the agent getting out of a car looking sharp and healthy. She's overpowered by a desire to connect, seeing Putnam as a way out of town.
From the start, Susan knows that Putnam is married. Putnam's wife (Sophie Lowe) supports her husband and, for much of the movie, has no idea that he might have a dark side.
Stuck in a town that's portrayed as dirtbag hell, the ambitious Putnam thinks he might impress his superiors by solving a string of bank robberies. En route, he leads a drug bust at Susan's home, opening the door for him to enlist her as a snitch.
Susan has more on her mind than helping Putnam advance his career. She tries to seduce him. After some half-hearted resistance, Putnam takes the bait.
Clarke mostly brings Susan to life, allowing her looks to be defaced to depict Susan's slide into terrible drug abuse.
Huston, who played a man who had half his face blown off in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, can't quite locate a core for a character who perhaps doesn't have one. Putnam is self-absorbed and ultimately dangerous.
Thora Birch doesn't get a chance to do much as Susan's sister, a hairdresser. Among the supporting cast, Knoxville lands the hardest hit.
Noyce's varied resume includes movies such as Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, and Rabbit Proof Fence. He's a good director but he’s working with a story that follows a downbeat arc based on a real-crime book written by Joe Sharkey.
Sharkey’s observant, detailed prose did more to create involvement than Susan's forlorn narration.
On screen, Above Suspicion has its moments, but it never feels as if we're discovering anything revelatory as we follow these characters on their predictably doomed journeys.