“I will always tell you the truth”
This is what Jason Derek Brown says to his sister multiple times during the course of American Murderer. He says it with confidence, resolve, and a genuineness that few would be able to resist. Early in the film, he utters this phrase in order to assure his sister of his golden intentions, but as the story progresses and Brown finds himself under increasing pressure of his own making, it takes a decidedly different meaning. Despite being delivered with identical aplomb, it becomes much less about convincing others of his trustworthiness than it is a mantra to bolster his own waning self-assurance. Brown is a conman with a lot of angry people on his tail, and if there’s one thing keeping him ahead of the heat, it’s his ability to buy his own bullshit. Really, he never tells anyone the truth. Not friends, not family, and least of all himself.
American Murderer is based on the true story of Jason Derek Brown, a killer, conman, and thief. He’s been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for nearly fifteen years, and as of this writing, he remains at large. The film, written and directed by Matthew Gentile, doesn’t make any claims to know where Brown is today, instead focusing on the events leading to his disappearance, and investigating the mind of the fugitive himself. Played with intense gusto by Tom Pelphrey, it’s no wonder Brown was such a successful criminal. He’s charming, kind, and helpful to the people around him, but only insofar as something can be gained. Pelphrey makes it easy to believe that so many fell under Brown’s sway, even against their own best interests.
This is best depicted in the opening scene in which Brown pawns a few “personal” keepsakes for cash. The items he’s hocking mean a lot to him as indicated by his tears, but unfortunately, he needs the money. What starts as an emotional plea for a higher price than offered quickly becomes a clinical battle of wills with the man behind the counter. The tears dry up and suddenly, it’s all business. This switching of modes is pathologically effortless, indicative of Brown’s ability to negotiate his own reality to whatever ends benefit him most. Pelphrey, in all his charm, plays Brown as a man constantly in a state of cost/benefit analysis. But as we all know, there’s only so far a grift can go before it comes crumbling down. The best grifters know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, but Brown’s actions feel more like those of a gambling addict than that of a malevolent criminal — even when he’s gotten away clean, he just can’t help himself but to try for a little more.
So naturally, the heat is always just a few steps behind him. Here, it comes in the form of some thugs to whom he owes money, as well as the law enforcement professionals assigned to bring him to justice. The film tosses back and forth between Brown’s various crimes and the work of Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe), a determined detective who will stop at nothing to stop his target.
It’s a bit cat-and-mouse, a bit police procedural, and a lot “getting into the mind of the criminal,” and for the most part these three genres mash up in a compelling, satisfying way. It’s a relatively slow burn that gives the performances the space they need to breathe, but it’s never boring. Pitch perfect period detail (the film covers around a decade of ground) and gorgeous location photography give the proceedings a sense of realism that a larger budget production would often eschew in the name of star power. This isn’t to say that American Murderer is absent of recognizable faces (Ryan Phillippe, Idina Menzel, and Jacki Weaver are here in all their Hollywood glory), but that the film leans away from banking on their names, instead allowing for full-bodied characterizations that place this real-world story in the real world, exactly where it should be.
Tonally, it’s a solid balance of suspense and drama with a sprinkle of character-based comedy to give it some energy. Odd that we want to see Brown taken down just as much as we want to see him continue moving through the world with a hedonistic appetite. Against all odds I found myself as enamored with Brown’s antics as I was appalled by them. This is likely an intended consequence of the film — I get the sense that the filmmakers want us to recognize just how easy it is to fall victim to one of Brown’s many cons.
Fans of true crime should make it a point to check this one out, as it is highly likely to inspire a trip down an internet rabbit hole or two. Where the hell is this guy?!? I would love to know, but alas…
Directed by Matthew Gentile
Written by Matthew Gentile
Starring Tom Pelphrey, Ryan Phillippe, Idina Menzel, Paul Schneider
Rated R, 102 Minutes