While I would not call this a perfect movie, Pelphrey gave a hell of a performance and aced such a peculiar, complex and specific type of person.

Film Review: American Murderer

Film Reviews

American Murderer
Director: Matthew Gentile

Saban Capital Group
Streaming: 10.21

My usual disinterest in films involving guns, FBI investigations and money heists made me hesitant to tackle a review of Matthew Gentile’s American Murderer. My opinion on the genre hasn’t changed much since watching this film; however, it was enjoyable for these reasons: Rico from Hannah Montana (Moisés Arias) makes a cameo in the film, it was filmed here in Utah and I discovered in the final few minutes of my viewing experience that it is based on a true story that I’m stunned myself—nor many of my fellow Salt Lakers—have any knowledge of. 

The film follows the (very real) life of Jason Derek Brown (Tom Pelphrey)—one of the most wanted killers in America. On November 29, 2004, Brown allegedly shot and killed an armored car guard outside a movie theater, escaping with the money. He remains unfound to this day and was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for almost 15 years until this September, replaced by Michael James Pratt. American Murderer walks us through Brown’s mind, relationships and upbringing. We meet his siblings David (Paul Schneider) and Jamie Brown (Shantel VanSanten), his lover Melanie (Idina Menzel) and a handful of others that play a significant role in Brown’s life leading to the crime.

The shooting took place in Phoenix, Arizona, but Brown lived in and out of Salt Lake City. Seeing Pelphrey stop by some familiar local spots like Exotic Kitty, drive down State Street or make his way to the most obvious Utah suburbs you’ve ever seen pulled me into the story immediately. There’s nothing like seeing your home on the big screen and giggling when you know the main character’s heading in the wrong direction (see: High School Musical 3 when Troy walks home from Gabriella’s house going the wrong way). While having this knowledge of the area made for a more exciting experience, it also raised a couple of red flags. 

After some time researching the true events, I realized that the film did a poor job of executing the details. An example of this was Brown’s bouncing around of locations. The entire production was filmed in various parts of Utah. It was unclear that Brown had moved from state to state, and that though he did live in Salt Lake, the shooting occurred in Phoenix, Arizona. American Murderer does not make this evident and created a good level of confusion. Its scattering timeline lost me a handful of times, too. 

As the film is based on true events, it is worth seeing. If it were fictional, I would be obliged to consider it a pass, but the influence these very real events had on the country is mind-bending and worth knowing. While I would not call this a perfect movie, Pelphrey gave a hell of a performance and aced such a peculiar, complex and specific type of person. His chemistry with Idina Menzel was especially noteworthy. I do enjoy a good character study, and American Murderer does a fairly good job at exploring this intriguing individual, and I give Gentile mega props for this.

Being that American Murderer focused on one of America’s most interesting killers, its overall execution feels fairly dry. The film opened too many relationships between Jason and the people in his life that it was never able to investigate any of them deeply enough, only leaving me with more confusion and disappointment. My attention would be drawn to petty thefts and familial or romantic relationships, only for them to be deserted or not fully developed.

While I understand this strategy is meant to make a statement about Brown’s chaotic lifestyle and inability to hold onto things he loves, it appeared to be more half-baked than meaningful in its execution. I suggest giving this a watch when you’ve got nothing else, but I’d advise looking into this very interesting case beforehand, or even skipping the film and just diving into a YouTube analysis. –Birdy Francis

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