Americans are fascinated with criminals. You know this because you watch movies and TV, listen to podcasts, read books and magazines and encounter their stories everywhere. Sometimes they’re protagonists you root for. Sometimes they’re villains who are more entertaining than the hero. This infatuation with those living outside the law extends back to the frontiers of the Wild West — maybe even the rebellious founders who dumped tea in Boston Harbor. Whatever it is, there is an endless fascination with those who refuse to play by the rules, for better or for worse.
This plays doubly true for those criminal stories with a basis in reality. So it goes in American Murderer, the impressive feature debut from writer-director Matthew Gentile, based on the crimes of FBI’s most wanted Jason Derek Brown. Played by Tom Pelphrey, American Murderer’s Jason is a career conman with a sparkling smile and an ability to talk his way in and out of just about everything. He’s fit and good-looking, though Pelphrey and Gentile don’t work too hard to hide Jason’s age. He’s north of youthful indiscretion, and the past is catching up fast.
American Murderer opens with Jason haggling over the value of a watch and ring at a pawn shop, then deftly escaping some angry creditors via the shop’s back door. That the owner doesn’t question why Jason needs a back door exit says a lot. Ditto for how Jason’s brother, David (Paul Schneider) and sister, Jamie (Shantel VanSanten), don’t really question Jason’s requests. Only Mom (Jacki Weaver) calls out her son’s BS — probably because Jason turned out like dear old dad (Kevin Corrigan).
There are others. Single mom Michelle (Idina Menzel) suspects Jason isn’t what he appears, but can’t help herself. He pays her the attention she needs, and he’s genial with her son. Women at the bar know Jason talks a bigger game than he plays but still fall for it. Everyone thinks they know who Jason is, but they have only fragments. Only FBI Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe) has the whole picture.
American Murderer is framed by Leising’s investigation, with interviews touching off various flashbacks. It’s a smart construct and allows Gentile to show rather than tell while maintaining a reserved distance. It’s not objective, per se, but it does keep the narrative from falling for Jason’s spell. Gentile and Pelphrey are not conspiring to glorify Jason but to puncture his fantasy.
Gentile does this through a home video — one Jason shot of himself on a boat with plenty of booze, surrounded by women in bikinis. On the surface, it looks like the success Jason has always envisioned. But in truth, the vodka he’s drinking is cheap, the women’s attention is superficial, and Jason keeps talking to the camera as if no one on the boat is listening.
Gentile has both Jason and Agent Leising return to this video multiple times. One is searching for clues, the other for a reminder of what he once had. Both are emblematic of what makes these kinds of stories so damn fascinating. It’s also what makes American Murderer one to watch.
ON SCREEN: American Murderer is streaming on Amazon Prime.