Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 1st, 2023
American Murderer (Matthew Gentile, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
A strong cast and some very well-scripted moments make American Murderer, from writer/director Matthew Gentile (making his feature debut as an adaptation of his own 2019 short), a thrill ride through a very cold case. Notorious con man Jason Derek Brown has been wanted for first-degree murder since 2004, when he is alleged to have killed an armored-car driver in cold blood. In 2007, he was placed on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List (he has fallen off since). He has never been caught. His life, and crimes, are at the center of the movie.
Tom Pelphrey (Ben Davis on Season 3 of Netflix’s Ozark) stars as Jason, charming and feckless in equal measure. In the very first scene, we see both characteristics in play as he negotiates a pawn-shop sale while some nasty creditors are in hot pursuit. Is he really good at what he does? Hard to tell. It’s certainly worked for a while, though now the walls of his not-so-carefully constructed life are crumbling.
Following his every move, in hindsight, is FBI agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe, The 2nd), attached to the investigation post-shooting. As he works through past events, we catch glimpses of Jason’s high and low points, including interactions with his sister (Shantel VanSanten, Becca Butcher on Amazon’s The Boys), brother (Paul Schneider, A House on the Bayou), mother (Jacki Weaver, Father Stu), father (Kevin Corrigan, Teenage Badass), and Melanie (Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems) a woman who not only leases Jason a house, but becomes his lover. Slowly, a picture emerges of the swindler, and it is not favorable.
On the other hand, at least Jason has personality, which is sorely lacking in the man who hunts him. If this otherwise enjoyable romp through the seedy side of life has a weakness, it’s in that particular character. Try as he might, Phillippe can’t make Leising all that interesting, and given how much time we spend with him, that’s unfortunate. On the plus side, everything else clicks.
Twisting through time and space, Gentile weaves his gritty crime drama using narrative feints, parries, and thrusts, leading us to the sharp point of the piece, which is the why and how of Jason Derek Brown’s actions. No one knows what’s happened to him since the murder; we only know, sort of, what he did. And so the field is ripe for a clever filmmaker’s imagination to sow its fertile seeds. The man may be missing, but his riddle gets its compelling origin story right here.