One of the most common issues for films is the inability to know what kind of story they are telling. “American Murderer” feels like it could easily slip into more of a procedural mode, following the behavior of wanted criminal Jason Derek Brown leading up to the armed robbery and murder of an armored car driver and the profile that FBI agents gathered about their suspect in the days following the act. But its non-linear narrative and abandonment of that deliberative form of storytelling suggest a greater interest in doing a character study of Brown. That internal struggle between the distant framework and expressive character undercuts the good that writer/director Matthew Gentile produces in “American Murderer,” leaving a film that doesn’t satisfy as much as it could.
Jason Derek Brown (Tom Pelphrey) is a con man who seems to always be one step ahead of consequences hitting him. Whether it’s the law, loan sharks or some other person he’s ripped off, Brown manages to evade them long enough to start up some new racket. This façade extends to his love (Idina Menzel) and even his brother (Paul Schneider), sister (Shantel VanSanten) and mother (Jacki Weaver). Later, after some event that eventually comes to pass in the story, Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe) interviews the people in Brown’s life to figure out just who this person is and who he pretended to be.
The greatest strength of “American Murderer” is the actors. Gentile gets strong performances from all involved, turning what could be incidental parts into more nuanced and fleshed-out characters. But two shine brighter than the rest, with Kevin Corrigan using very minimal screentime to make a huge impression as Brown’s father. The centerpiece of the whole film, however, is Pelphrey’s Brown. Without a strong presence in that role, the entirety of the project would be sunk. Pelphrey perfectly encapsulates that early 2000s douche-bro with the frosted tips and partying lifestyle that seemed to dominate MTV airwaves and Florida beaches at that time. Brown’s ruses are plain to see, and it’s hard not to watch without wondering how people can fall for this papier-mâché Mephistopheles. The fact that it’s based on a true story helps sell many of the cons, but it’s also the unrelenting energy of Pelphrey. Brown’s stupid tactics should constantly collapse (and they eventually do), but the charismatic resilience that the actor exudes makes it easier to see how people could be taken in by such obvious lies.
Unfortunately, his foil is not given much depth. Phillippe does what he can with the role, exhibiting a brewing intensity and barely restrained condescension, but there isn’t enough character to latch onto. It’s probable that Leising is an amalgam of real people, and therefore it’s hard to create any sort of background or layers from such a stand-in, but not much is used to inform the audience of who this person is except for his constant locked jaw and his Bush/Cheney keyring. This sort of cipher would work in a procedural where, through the actual tasks themselves and how they’re performed, a sense of character begins to be exhibited. As it stands, in this amorphous space between watching Leising conduct interviews and giving speeches condemning his suspect, nothing really comes across. That makes for a lopsided experience, as the audience spends so much time with the character.
The other unfortunate detriment to the enjoyment of “American Murderer” is a lack of real style. If it were a straightforward reenactment or procedural, then it would be excused for not really having much flash or authorial imprint because it would be aiming to recreate life. But the deviations from a simple rehashing and the use of non-linear storytelling invite more interesting camerawork and design. DP Kalilah Robinson and editors Matt Allen and Christopher Young do fine, workman-like jobs, but they never match the heightened levels of Brown’s persona. The chaotic world of this story should possess more frenzy that needs to be replicated in the look and pacing of the film. Towards the end, the editing begins to match up with the hurried panic in which Brown is swimming, but by then, it’s too late for any real impact.
“American Murderer” is an okay film whose story would make for an excellent documentary or a more expressive cinematic experience. While the cast carries it much of the way, there’s not enough depth or artistic flair to match the craziness of the events unfolding. Caught between presenting the facts and profiling one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, “American Murderer” ends up being at war with itself without enough focus to truly entertain.
Starring: Tom Pelphrey, Ryan Phillippe, Idina Menzel, Paul Schneider, Jackie Weaver
Director: Matthew Gentile