American Murderer


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

American Murderer
"Pelphrey is very effective in conveying the loneliness and misery which Brown brings upon himself."

Cinema presents us with a certain idea of who murderers are and how they live. The reality is almost always more chaotic. In dramatising the story of Jason Derek Brown, a killer who once featured on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, writer/director Matthew Gentile teases viewers who are new to it with several familiar and frequently glamorised possibilities, from affairs with women to brushes with organised crime, before bringing us around to an act of violence so trivially motivated in relation to the rest that the unnecessariness of the loss of life glares at us the way it always should.

We never get to know the victim; we learn only that he was 24, with a whole lifetime ahead of him. We spend a lot of time getting to know a mother and son who had become close to Brown over several months before the incident. We also spend a lot of time with Brown (Tom Pelphrey) himself, but whether or not we get to know him is difficult to judge. It’s not just that he’s a habitual liar who invents a new backstory every time he gets in trouble, but that his very personality is submerged under layers of carefully honed performance. He makes casual conversation like a telesales agent, always trying to funnel somebody into going along with his agenda. Frequent references to his cars, his boat, his businesses, his supposed success are obviously part of the image he uses for his cons, but at times the way he deploys them also suggests an effort to lie to himself.

There are three main strands to the film: Brown’s relationship with the aforementioned suburban mother (Idina Menzel), seen mostly from her perspective; his own efforts to acquire cash with which he can pay off a threatening loan shark; and the police search for him, led by FBI Special Agent Lance Leising (played by Ryan Phillippe, who provides the requisite gravitas with his voice but, clean shaven, still looks about 16). Though she’s a good looking woman, Menzel projects a kind of desperate housewife neediness which, in light of the way Brown presents himself, helps to explain how he pulled the wool over people’s eyes, though we also get a demonstration of the fact that such scams don’t work on everyone.

The most difficult part of the story to tell is the part focused directly on Brown – partly because his erratic behaviour, whilst typical of habitual criminals, doesn’t easily fit into a neat narrative, and partly because of that distance. Sensibly, Gentile leaves most of this until later in the film, when viewers have already invested in the story and there’s action to help keep them focused. He manages the uncertain aspects of the narrative well by focusing heavily on mood, with the glamour and enthusiasm of earlier scenes giving way to bleakness and melancholy, to a sense of failure which develops without the need for conventional resolution.

Pelphrey is very effective in conveying the loneliness and misery which Brown brings upon himself, as well as his difficulty in understanding how other people relate to each other. Some viewers will find his affected personality grating and, as a result, find the film frustrating to watch, but Gentile is to be congratulated on getting beyond the familiar tone of true crime into something which feels as uncomfortable as it should.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2023
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American Murderer packshot
Charismatic con man Jason Derek Brown earns a place on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list after hatching his most elaborate scheme yet.
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Director: Matthew Gentile

Writer: Matthew Gentile

Starring: Tom Pelphrey, Ryan Phillippe, Idina Menzel, Moises Arias, Paul Schneider, Shantel VanSanten

Year: 2022

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: US


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