No matter how close we are to someone, they’ll never truly know us. We can get close, sharing secrets others don’t know or confiding intrusive thoughts we might otherwise not, but without an actual mindmeld, it’s impossible for someone to know the person we are from the person we pretend to be. In his first feature-length project, writer/director Matthew Gentile tackles this notion through the presentation of one Jason Derek Brown, a real person on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for murder, theft, and unlawful flight from an incident in November 2004. The trick, however, is not much appears to be known about Brown, so Gentile’s film, American Murderer, is almost entirely cast in shadow, living in that space where no one, not even the audience, can truly trust what we see, hear, or think about Brown and the circumstances he found himself in.
Jason Derek Brown (Tom Pelphrey) is a wanted man. Raised by a similarly crafty father, Brown manages to smooth talk his way out of one bad situation after another, but what he does on November 29th, 2004, is on another level. Unprepared for the fallout, the usually controlled Brown is now on the run from the dangerous individuals to whom he owes money, but also by FBI Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe) for the murder of an armored car guard and theft of funds.
The phrase “Based on a true story” is a double-edged sword. It states to the audience that what we’re about to see is based on real events, implanting a suggestion that the events as they unfold are, in fact, authentic. Except so much of American Murderer has gaping holes that one wonders how much of what the audience experiences did happen versus how much is believed to have happened. In an October 2022 MovieMaker article from Margeaux Sippell, Gentile states that, “Because a lot of the earlier drafts were super close to how things happened, and shocker, they weren’t that dramatic. So I had to really kind of go in and figure out, how do I tell the story in a way that will ultimately entertain the audience the way the story entertains me?” This makes sense from the POV of a storyteller because real life is often less dramatic than the entertainment we imbibe, but what we get, while engaging, frequently raises more questions than it answers. Drama is great and there are some truly tense moments in American Murderer, but the structure and pacing of the film, along with the negative space of the narrative, rarely leads to one being on the end of their seat as a result.
When I speak of structure, Gentile opts to tell Brown’s story (and this is Brown’s story, not some true crime version of Catch Me If You Can (2002)) by jumping backward and forward through time. This both creates opportunities and some unexpected hindrances when engaging with the material. The opportunities reside in connecting Brown with those in his life. There are moments when the audience sees Brown on his own, seemingly making choices that seem in-the-moment but are actually part of a larger cycle of avarice that Brown can’t break free from. Other times, however, the audience watches scenes play out from the perspective of the interviewee chatting with Leising. It could be his sometimes girlfriend, played by Idina Menzel (Frozen series); his sister, played by Shantel VanSanten (The Flash); or his brother, played by Paul Schneider (Parks and Recreation); or an almost-partner in crime, played by Moises Arias (The King of Staten Island). Each time Leising speaks with one of them, we’re shunted over to that moment, seeing whatever situation they’re describing play out. Seeing as how much of Brown is an abstract, this allows for moments of shading and filling in. Gentile’s fantastic trick is that, in doing this, the audience forgets that this is a creation of those people’s perceptions. So even when we think we’re getting an accurate telling of something (minus their omissions, known and unknown), we’re being bamboozled at the same time. We’re essentially another Brown mark, falling for a brand new con. Especially with so much of Brown being a mystery, Gentile weaves a marvelous framework upon which a series of unknowns can be propped up.
The downside of this is that audiences will come away with far more questions than answers, partly due to the time jumping. While it works in conveying witness perspectives, it’s often difficult to tell when the flashback ends and we’re back “in the present” of November 2004, where the film begins and where the major event takes place. Observant audiences will get context clues (a different car, different hairstyle, and different dress), but even these are not so obvious as to be able to tell when a flashback ends and the present returns. In those instances, Gentile does rely on nearby surveillance materials to provide timestamps to solidify day/date, a nice way of suggesting that there is plenty of factual source material to lend credence to his version of events. The trick, though, is that even with these jumps in time, the audience never feels like they get to know who Brown is. Except for an off-hand comment from sister Jamie (VanSanten), the audience would never know that Brown had been married and was previously a devout member of the Mormon Church. If not for looking up the real FBI posting, I’d not know that Brown possesses a Master’s in International Business and can speak fluent French. Within the world of the film, we come to believe that Brown’s whole life is a smoke-screen, a series of lies on confidence games, with no sense of who he is beyond the crime that landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Instead, there’s a scene or two of Brown as a kid with his siblings and father (played by Kevin Corrigan of The King of Staten Island) that insinuates he is as he is because of his father, and then we get nothing for decades. Who is Brown? What did he do that put him in deep with the wrong people where he owed $80K? Was anything about him real? There’s not even an exploration of Leising, so it’s not that the audience has a proxy with him either. Short of knowing he’s a Fed and a specific shot of the man owning a Bush/Cheney ’04 keychain, he’s as much a mystery as Brown. And while the performances are strong from the central cast, they aren’t enough to hold on as the negative space of what we don’t know grows and grows. Even the title itself raises questions as it leads one to think of some kind of serial killer, an individual leaving a wake of horror behind him, when, instead, Brown is a dumb smart guy who’s little more than a mugger on the run.
Don’t mistake the above to imply that American Murderer lacks some sense of style or engagement. The opening sequence is a strong feature for Pelphrey, an actor audiences may know from Cinemax’s Banshee (2015-2016), Netflix’s Iron Fist (2017-2018), or the recent She Said (2022). Pelphrey’s performance from the start of the film to the end of that sequence establishes everything we need to know, his full skills on display, an impressive combination of verbal and physical delivery that conveys just how gifted this grifter is. The opening is strong in large part due to Pelphrey’s performance, but it’s Gentile’s direction in the conclusion that enhances the impact of the closing. At the time of this writing, Brown is still in the wind, and the way that Gentile demonstrates this to the audience is slick and stylish without being ostentatious. It is, in a word, the opposite of Brown himself: intelligent without awareness, smart without smugness, delicate without vulgarity. It’s small, simple, and gets the point across with beautiful symbolism throughout. Given the rather well-worn nature of the true crime procedural approach of the film as a whole, this is a moment that indicates a sense of who Gentile is as a creative.
The truth is, we won’t ever really know who Brown is or why he did what he did. We may learn his motives, but that won’t answer the question of escalation that inspired him to murder. In the space of these questions, there is a story, one which Gentile does try to fill with inference and a splash of cinematic drama. Between this and the performances from the cast, American Murderer is an entertaining distraction. Just don’t expect to walk away feeling like you know Brown. No one does.
In theaters October 21st, 2022.
Available on VOD and digital October 28th, 2022.
Available internationally January 30th, 2023.
For more information, head to the Lionsgate American Murderer webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming
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