Is there a cross-over between a gangster film and a crime film? While Matthew Gentile’s film would sit neatly alongside such recent fare as White Boy Rick or Black Mass, it’s probably unfair to consign it to any one genre. American Murderer is based on a true story, that of Jason Derek Brown, who is still at large and has featured on the FBI’s Top Ten Wanted list. But as the bluntly accurate title suggests, American Murderer bucks the trend of films glamourizing violent crime, and offers a darker character study, not just of an individual but of the American Dream gone sour, and it’s a film galvanised by a powerful central performance by Tom Pelphrey as Brown.
If you know Pelphrey’s face, it may well be from his breakout performance in Netflix’s Ozark, where he plays the mentally unstable brother of Laura Linney’s character. But American Murderer offers Pelphrey a very different challenge; we first see Brown walking into a run-down pawn shop and offering up a convincing impression of a recently bereaved man. Getting a chunk of the change he requires, the mask slips almost immediately, and Pelphrey absolutely nails these transformative moments as the story unfolds. Brown is not a gangster, but a con-man, who is prepared to tell any lie to get what he wants; it’s excruciating to hear him using 9/11 as an excuse, or his brother’s wife’s breast cancer, knowing that everything that comes out of Brown’s mouth is the fakest of fake news.
This isn’t a Mesrine-style story of an endless chain of violent events; Brown cold-bloodedly kills a security guard in a botched armoured car robbery, but Gentile frames this as a defining moment in Brown’s losing battle against the forces of nature and justice. In a Catch Me If You Can scenario, Brown is pursued by a FBI agent Lance Leising; casting Ryan Phillippe is an ideal shorthand for the film’s only underwritten role, although his Bush/Cheney key-ring speaks volumes. Leising also tracks down Brown’s unwilling associate (a marvellously ratty Moisés Arias) and his unsuspecting neighbour (Idina Menzel in a empathetic turn) who imagines Brown’s in the import/export golf-equipment business. And there’s a brief but telling cameo from the great Jacki Weaver as Brown’s mother, the one person who is not prepared to accept Brown’s lies for a split-second.
American Murderer may not please those in thrall to the hip soundtracks and ‘legendary’ gangsterism of Scorsese; Brown is the kind of no-mark criminal who hones his craft by googling ‘armoured car robbery’ on a public library computer. But the challenge of finding eighty grand in three days leads Brown to a desperate, inexcusable act of violence that Leising correctly calls an ‘execution’; this guy isn’t just an anti-hero a la Red Rocket, beneath his good looks, he’s society’s worst nightmare and Gentile and Pelphrey spare us nothing. Brown’s mother complains that her own son is ‘delusional enough to buy his own bull-sh*t’, and that’s what dooms him to failure, if not capture; a key scene cuts between Brown and Lesing watching a video that the con-man has sent the cop of him cavorting on a yacht with girls and champagne. Entitled Jason’s Life, it’s a blurred snapshot of success that doesn’t exist, and it’s a shared vision that tortures both men in different ways. Although the coda is well-judged, American Murderer doesn’t quite have the big, satisfying ending the trailer promises, but it’s a racy, aggressive movie about how self-deception leads directly to crime, and Pelphrey’s stunning, hypnotic performance makes it worth a recommend.