A Stellar Cast Barely Hoists ‘American Murderer’ Out of True Crime Mediocrity

The art of the con is big right now, and American Murderer is hoping to cash in, betting on a stellar cast and fascinating true story to carry the day. That it isn’t nearly as compelling as it should be can be blamed on the fact that it leans a little too hard on both, without incorporating much of anything resembling a bigger picture beyond the personal.

What we do get of the story of con man, murderer, and fugitive Jason Derek Brown is still a master class in early aughts toxicity gone off the rails, thanks in large part to how well Tom Pelphrey masters Brown’s psychopathy. Along with the MySpace and Ashton Kutcher references, there’s also an undercurrent of how he was also a sign of the times, which practically (and often did) applaud the shameless hustle and even outright exploitation.

American Murderer begins right in the middle of the mess Brown has made of his life, as he walks into a pawn shop looking to sell. That we are highly aware of his deception is a given, but the extent of his cold-blooded snow job is yet to come. But the movie is less interested in what made Brown’s psychopathy than in how his brand of monstrosity curdled into the recognizable, overt type of violence, the type that has a body count.

No Heroes Here

Before true crime fans can rejoice, a caveat: there’s no one to root for, on either side of the law. The movie is uninterested in making Brown a monster anyone can get behind, and as for the FBI agent determined to bring him down? Before there’s a chance for Ryan Phillippe to be too cool to be true in era-appropriate shades and suit, the camera takes care to zoom in on his Bush/Cheney keychain, making it unlikely for him to be endeared to too many.

Phillippe isn’t here to flex his comedic muscles, as his lawman is no one’s comic relief, showing clear class distinctions in his willingness to treat Brown’s sympathetically complicit blonde sister Jamie (Shantel VanSanten) with far more grace than Brown’s associate Kyle (Moises Arias), who is actually far more helpful and even proves to have a few principles. A film which prides itself on no heroes is hardly a novel idea, but in American Murderer it’s a matter-of-fact choice that’s depressing in its familiarity.

Brown’s methods are likewise familiar, but the truly unsettling part of Pelphrey’s performance is how well natural charisma and far more studied confidence are channeled so effectively to such chilling ends. As Pelphrey snakes his way into the club VIP section, onto yachts, into the home of single mother Melanie (Idina Menzel), and the life of his far more stable and successful brother David (Paul Schneider), only his mother Jeanne (Jacki Weaver) seems to recognize her son’s toxicity is the same dangerous strain as his equally manipulative scam artist father (Kevin Corrigan), who schooled his son in the lifestyle that led him to vanish without a trace.

Descending Deeper

As Brown spirals more and more into his father’s worst impulses and finally trumps him with murder, the supporting cast that is the stuff of award season dreams is at least put to good use, but without a little context, American Murderer is unable to ascend to the heights it’s capable of. Brown’s Mormon missionary past is spoken of but never shown in the movie’s numerous flashbacks, nor is location allowed to come much into play. The time’s politics and pop culture are merely name-dropped at best, with no convenient clip insertion of the era’s most toxic celebrities, which could’ve lent far more air into the movie’s vacuous focus on its subject.

Director and writer Matthew Gentile may be very correct in his dependence on Pelphrey’s ability to fascinate, but his typical obsession with family obliterates any other possible framing which could’ve made American Murderer something at least approaching greatness. As it is, it’s more than passable as one of the more brief true crime meditations on some of the worst impulses that lurk behind a smiling facade.

Grade: 6/10 SPECS

American Murderer is available in VOD in the US, and will hit international screens on January 30.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.

She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.