American Murderer was directed and written by Matthew Gentile (Lawman, Frontman) and stars Tom Pelphrey (Banshee, Guiding Light), Ryan Phillippe (One Shot, The 2nd), Idina Menzel (Rent, Ralph Breaks the Internet), Shantel VanSanten (Shooter tv series, For All Mankind), Paul Schneider (Abandoned, Beloved), and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook, Bird Box). It’s about the real-life conman Jason Derek Brown completing his newest scheme while under the watchful eye of the government.
The Plot: Not all true crime tales are made equal, but they don’t have to be in order to engage an audience. Gentile’s film doesn’t have many differences in its overarching story aside from the ending, which may come as a surprise due to the preceding events.
Across the American southwest, one Jason Brown (Pelphrey) has been committing a spree of fraud that’s been giving the FBI a tough time in catching him. Case leader Leising (Phillippe) has been investigating the trail with few clues coming from them; like previous neighbour Melanie (Menzel), who doesn’t do much other than relay his arrival in her town. Eventually, the director follows this thread and goes non-linear with American Murderer’s plot, which is rather jarring as it makes a highlight reel out of his lies without a place to start.
Periods and places become a bit of a blur as Leising interviews Jason’s family, starting with his sister Jamie (VanSanten) and progressing through the family tree with his brother David (Schneider) and mother Jeanne (Weaver) without so much as a connection between them and the case. It takes a long time for the movie to garner some sense of narrative progression. Jason, in the then present day of 2007, is given a reason to get violent after some debtors come his way, which in turn gets Leising on the case, which has a surprising ending of sorts.
It’s the only thing that works about American Murderer’s story, which frequently breaks its own rules of perspective and never fits the pieces together to make something coherent.
The Characters: In the attempt by the filmmakers to make American Murderer into an investigation itself, there’s not much room for relationships or personality. Most characters appear as piles of information without adding anything to the picture themselves.
Jason is the only character that’s actively engaging to watch, though he’s not given the full treatment of humanization by the script. It’s speculated throughout the runtime that he’d been changed in some way by his father’s repugnance, but Gentile fails to provide much reason for his manipulative, overcompensatory, and grating personality and subsequent actions. Half the character is there, as it’s clear he lives for the thrill of using cash for anything illegal, but American Murderer doesn’t understand what makes him tick, so neither does the audience.
Leising is the reserved and almost emotionless foil to the outgoing and brash grifter, but there’s an equal level of missed opportunities on that end as well. He’s stolid and seemingly invested in the case, but he’s absent for a large portion of the movie, which leaves the level of depth low. Apparently, he’s always training during his off time and hardly ever smiles, making the destination all the more of a shock. Still, he’s given too little to do in a movie of this type.
Brown’s family members and other small supporting roles raise just as many questions as they do answers, and this isn’t by design. Melanie just explains that he was hard to miss, and his mother is shown to be done with his ploys. Both of his siblings helped him out at one point or another because of a sense of obligation, but there are never scenes devoted to developing any of these relationships, making each appearance feel random instead of connected to an investigation of a twisted conman. It’s great that the movie has some degree of character pertaining to Jason because the support is dismal.
The Crime: While the events of the film have a good buildup, the disconnect between random acts of crime and the FBI’s case let American Murderer down. Interest remains simply because of the basis in reality and a few choice moments of confrontation.
Conning an individual is easy for Jason, who’s an actor at his core. Gentile starts off with a very entertaining robbery of sorts, as the crook puts on his best puppy dog eyes and comes up with a tragic backstory as he’s about to pawn his family’s stolen jewelry while simultaneously raising his asking price to the store owner. It’s just another little scheme to him, which is a trajectory maintained with his bedding of Melanie, his attempt to scam his own mother, and possibly the disappearance of his father. These are easily the best scenes of the film.
Leising’s investigation takes a long time to turn up anything of narrative or criminal substance, as the interviewees tell him about towns he showed up in just to leave not long after and his father’s alcoholism and verbal manipulation. Halfway through the movie, the agent finds out that he may have plans to rob an armoured truck, which is one of the few actual clues he gets. That piece of information, while important to Jason’s story, again doesn’t amount to much; the same can be said of the investigation angle, which doesn’t dig into his headspace or stop a crime.
Criminality is showcased in American Murderer through a mix of these types of scenes, which serve to make the grifts varied and unpredictable but aren’t all that compelling as a larger picture.
The Technics: Signs of confusion from the filmmakers show up early, as American Murderer looks decent and sounds just fine, but completely lacks a sense of structure and period. It’s no surprise that this is Gentile’s first feature.
The direction of American Murderer’s narrative simply didn’t need to be adjusted to make the story compelling, but it was done anyway. Details get lost in the shuffling of the timeline, like the fact that Jason was married, went to France on a mission, and came back a different man. Structurally the film is an oblong mess, as some key moments are given a date while others aren’t, there’s no regard for the way these things connect to each other, and there’s not much rhyme or reason to the screen appearances of the characters. It’s an odd choice to try to maintain two different points of view when that wouldn’t have added much even if done correctly.
Individual scenes and aspects of the movie are less problematic. The camera work is mediocre but close and personal in the way that most shots have some minor movement while focusing on characters’ faces instead of grasping for a less human style. Nothing about the sound department is off, but nothing is remarkable either, and the 2000s time period is somewhat captured but never overtly present. From a construction lens, the only thing that sticks out is the jumbled timeline.
The ingredients were there for an acceptable time killer, but Gentile’s scripting and exclusion of the audience’s understanding of events make American Murderer into a dull true crime film that’s only casually watchable thanks to Pelphrey and Weaver.
American Murderer is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Platforms from Lionsgate.