REVIEW: “American Murderer” (2022)

For fans of true crime, writer-director Matthew Gentile’s feature film debut “American Murderer” makes for a sturdy genre entry. It’s a crime thriller based on the true story of Jason Derek Brown, a crafty and charismatic conman who became one of the most wanted fugitives in the United States. In 2007 he was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List where he remained until September of last year. Despite years of countless tips and the Bureau’s efforts, Brown has yet to be captured.

On November 29, 2004 a gunman believed to be James Derek Brown shot and killed a 24-year-old armored car guard outside of a Phoenix movie theater. At approximately 10 AM, Robert Keith Palomares walked out of the theater with $56,000 in weekend deposits. He was immediately ambushed by a hooded Brown who shot Palomares five times in the head before fleeing with the bag of money. Eyewitnesses and security cameras helped authorities to pinpoint Brown as their suspect.

Gentile uses a fractured timeline structure to tell Brown’s story, nimbly moving us from one point to the next through the investigation of a dogged FBI agent named Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe). We follow Leising as he interviews those close to James who may have information he can use. During the interviews, we’re treated to a series of flashbacks that give us a better picture of James Derek Brown. In them he’s played with a wicked allure by Tom Pelphrey.

Pelphrey’s convincing portrayal reveals to us a narcissistic sociopath who is able to conceal his devilish true self behind a facade of sensitivity and charm. We watch as Brown, with no conscience and no remorse, lies, scams, and steals in an effort to maintain his lavish yet spurious lifestyle. Along the way, those he cons range from a trusting single mom (Idina Menzel) and a low-rung street hood (Moisés Arias) to his very own sister (Shantel VanSanten) and mother (Jacki Weaver).

Despite knowing it all culminates in a cold-blooded murder, it’s mostly through his interactions with the above characters that we realize the depths of Brown’s depravity. In one sense it’s a fascinating watch – seeing how systematically he goes along with his ruse and observing his callous disregard for his victims. There are a couple of brief breaks where we do see what looks like genuine compassion, mainly towards his sister. But even those moments are tainted by his shameless self-regard.

But in another sense, it would be nice to know the other side of James Derek Brown – from before he became hopelessly irredeemable. In fairness, “American Murderer” is focused on a specific time frame in Brown’s life. It seeks to show the immediate events leading up to him brutally murdering Robert Keith Palomares. But it feels like we’re missing so much of his story. There are a couple of childhood flashbacks and we hear allusions to who he used to be. But it’s never quite enough to give us a well-rounded perspective.

Yet Gentile does a terrific job of keeping us invested, straight through to the broad daylight, execution styled murder. Much of it is due to his keen direction, more specifically his efficient pacing and the methodical way he builds towards the story’s fatal crescendo. And he’s helped by all-around good performances, especially from Pelphrey who loses himself in a truly diabolical role. I still wish I had a better grasp of his character, but there’s no denying that Pelphrey delivers one of the most seductively vile villains you’ll see on screen. “American Murderer” played in select theaters and is now available on VOD.


4 thoughts on “REVIEW: “American Murderer” (2022)

  1. I want to see this one. I’m of 2 minds about wanting to see what he was before he became what you describe. OTOH everyone needs their story told, but getting pulled into empathy for someone like this person makes you vulnerable to his heinousness. I have a feeling the real life person this is based on shot the victim so many times because he knew him and couldn’t take any chances on him ever talking. Scary to think people like him are out and about, looking for opportunities.

    • Oh for sure. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want a full backstory at all. That would have bogged the movie down and sidetracked it completely. I just felt that we only get allusions to his past. There’s a vague story about his father that never gets much traction, etc. But those are minor things. I definitely recommend checking it out.

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