Emilia Clarke‘s Rolling Stone cover is another celebration of her Game of Thrones fame (i.e., “Queen of Dragons”). Clarke has been dining out on that hugely popular HBO series for six years now, but gradually realized, as every star of a hit cable series has in the past, that she had to do more rep-wise than the usual usual, which in her case meant wearing that blonde wig and performing the occasional nude scene. The long game required it.

And so last summer Clarke starred in Phillip Noyce‘s Above Suspicion, a fact-based, late-’80s drama about Susan Smith, a drug-addicted Eastern Kentucky mom who lunged at an affair with a married FBI guy named Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) as a possible means of escape from her dead-end existence, but played her hand too hard and wound up dead in the woods.

(l.) Jack Huston as Mark Putnam, (r.) Emilia Clarke as Susan Smith in Phillip Noyce‘s Above Suspicion.

Clarke did good. Her emotionally poignant performance as Smith proves that she can operate above and beyond the realm of Tits and Dragons, and with scrappy conviction to spare. Tart, pushy, believably pugnacious. Clarke is English-born and raised but you’d never know it. Her Susan is the Real McCoy in a trailer-trash way, but she brings heart to the game. In other words she’s affecting, which is to say believably scared to death. What Clarke delivers, trust me, is a lot more than just the usual collection of redneck mannerisms.

Speaking as one who despises rednecks in general and who presumes that the residents of Pikeville, Kentucky, where Smith lived and died, went heavily for Donald Trump last November, it means something that I wound up feeling genuinely sorry for this spunky, self-destructive, long-dead woman whom Clarke has brought back to life.

How do I know all this? Noyce’s film screened last week for a select group of elite blogaroo types, and I can say straight and true that Above Suspicion, which is based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 true-life novel, is a triple-A, tightly-wound, character-driven genre flick (i.e., rednecks, drug deals, criminals, lawmen, murder, car chases, bank robberies) of the highest and smartest order.

Most people would define “redneck film” as silly escapist trash in the Burt Reynolds mode, but there have been a small handful that have portrayed rural boondock types and their tough situations in ways that are top-tier and real-deal. My favorites in this realm are John Boorman‘s Deliverance, Billy Bob Thornton‘s Sling Blade, and Lamont Johnson‘s The Last American Hero. I’m not saying Noyce’s film is the absolute, dollars-to-donuts equal of these films, but it certainly deserves to stand side by side as a peer, and is absolutely a close relation with a similar straight-cards, no-bullshit attitude.

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.

Above Suspicion damn sure feels like an early ’70s film. I mean that in the most complimentary way you could possibly imagine. It’s about real people, tough decisions, yokel culture, corruption, Percocets, hot car sex and lemme outta 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.

And I absolutely love that it uses a device from Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard. No, I’m not going to elaborate but I don’t mean showing a dead body suddenly sitting up in a morgue.

Hats off to producer Colleen Camp, who’s been shepherding this project for years, and exec producer Linda Bruckheimer.

The more I think about Above Suspicion, the sadder I feel for Clarke’s character. Even though the story is set nearly 30 years ago, there’s a clear echo of today’s blue-red divide. There’s just something ineffably sad about a white-trash rural woman looking to escape her plight by hitching up with a smart, educated, professional-class FBI guy…and then realizing her dream was all smoke, and then going mad with rage and screwing things up even worse.

The costars include Thora Birch (The Colony), Johnny Knoxville (easily the best serious- shit performance he’s ever given), Brian Lee Franklin, Luke Spencer Roberts, Sophie Lowe, Kevin Dunn, Chris Mulkey (Whiplash), Karl Glusman (Nocturnal Animals), Austin Hebert, Omar Benson Miller, Brian Lee Franklin and Brittany O’Grady.

Above Suspicion is being shopped to distributors as we speak. It feels to me like a late winter or spring release. It’s for people who actually like strong stories, believable milieus and situations, well-honed dialogue…all that stuff that used to matter a great deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up at Sundance next January but who knows? If it plays there you can bet your ass it’ll knock ’em dead at the Eccles.