February 16th, 2023
MOVIE: AMERICAN MURDERER
STARRING: TOM PELPHREY, RYAN PHILLIPPE, IDINA MENZEL, PAUL SCHNEIDER
DIRECTED BY: MATTHEW GENTILE
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
Out of the blue, writer/director Matthew Gentile sent me an email, asking me to review his film American Murderer. I had never heard about it and when I searched IMDB I was surprised to see a strong cast of actors. Typically, if a director would be emailing a film critic, it’s more of a push to get a smaller film more publicity. Sometimes it’s a movie that has zero distribution or is just flat out bad. To my surprise, American Murderer is a captivating and mysterious drama. A true-crime film that we don’t see enough of. It has the roots of the stories we hear on Dateline. It has a build up similar to Goodfellas or recently The Good Nurse. Out of the blue came American Murderer and what was delivered is a pulpy dark thriller.
The story begins in the early-2000’s, focused on Jason Derek Brown (Tom Pelphrey showing great acting chops), a con-man, a swindler, and smooth talker that would make his way onto being one of the FBI’s 10-most wanted. Along the way, we meet his brother David (Paul Schneider), sister Jamie (Shantel VanSanten), and their mother Jeanne (Jacki Weaver). All of them become crutches and useful tools for Jason in his shady lifestyle. He robs pawn shops, steals golf clubs, and straight up pretends to be someone else. His con is life and anyone who will fall for his devilish smile could be his next mark.
What makes American Murderer more than a standard crime drama is the screenplay from Gentile. His writing is sharp and balances the dialogue with larger than life characters. We see the mischievous side of Jason. He dyes his hair blonde and moves into a house next to single mom Melanie (Idina Menzel). He’s great with her kid and the chemistry is instant. Even though he’s slimy, she can’t see it, desperate to have someone, and an extra hand to help. The leveling factor is the pursuit by FBI Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe), often one step away, but sending us down the rabbit hole of his investigation. It’s as he gets closer where Brown’s own desperation creates further intrigue. Not unlike other great crime dramas, such as The Fugitive, or Ransom, American Murderer is a constant wave of thrills and chills.
That’s not to say everything is perfect in American Murderer. The title doesn’t exactly match. One might believe this to be the story of a serial killer when in reality the crimes are more duplicitous. Outside of Gentile’s great direction and a strong performance by Pelphrey, there could have been a great performance from Phillippe as well, who is not channeling his inner Tommy Lee Jones. It’s not that Gentile’s script specifically calls for that kind of performance, but the work would be elevated if everyone was on Pelphrey’s level.
It’s a story told before, but it always frustrates, where an excellent drama like American Murderer goes unnoticed. The highlight of Tom Pelphrey’s performance is more than enough to elevate but it’s exciting to have high hopes for what Matthew Gentile will be doing next. American Murderer isn’t a movie you let slip through the cracks. It’s great true-crime and that’s the kind of movie you seek out.
AMERICAN MURDERER IS AVAILABLE ON ALL STREAMING PLATFORMS FOR RENT AND ON DEMAND.
Written by: Leo Brady