Film Review: American Murderer is an engaging true crime thriller bolstered by the disarming performance of Tom Pelphrey

It’s alarming to think that the name Jason Derek Brown is one that had been on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list for 15 years; only this past September was his name removed, though he remains a wanted criminal.

I say alarming as it’s not a name it seems people are overly familiar with, but as demonstrated in Matthew Gentile‘s entertaining thriller American Murderer, Brown is a figure worthy of his apparent notoriety, and now he has his own filmic story to add fuel to his dangerous fire.

A charismatic con-man (aren’t they all) who pursued his hopeful life of financial stability to the point of murder, Brown is framed in an easy, natural light, brought charmingly to fruition by Tom Pelphrey.  With a silver tongue, a disarming smile, and a certain sexual appeal, it’s easy to see how Brown was able to fleece as much money as he did from the unsuspecting collective he surrounded himself with.

One person who isn’t buying it though is his mother, Jeanne (Jacki Weaver).  Done with his constant promises of bettering himself and paying her back evident years worth of loans, she’s cutting him off.  Something that his girlfriend, Melanie (Idina Menzel), similarly ought to do, but she’s initially blinded by his charm, and when the realisation comes to her, it’s perhaps already too late.

Luckily for Jeanne, Melanie, and the heft of others who have been wronged by Jason’s nature, FBI agent Leising (Ryan Phillippe) is not far off his trail, and it’s through his investigation that Gentile’s script makes way for deeper, darker realisations regarding his sinful activities.  Whilst Jeanne is able to see Jason for the criminal he truly is – though his eventual murderous tendencies are not something she’s able to comprehend either – Pelphrey relishes the opportunity to dance with the volatility of his character.  He tears up and begs for our sympathy as quickly as he devilishly laughs off such an emotional ploy.  Melanie and his own sister (Shantel VanSanten‘s Jamie) bare witness to his softer side, but how much of it is truly Jason remains vague.  It’s a delicate performance that could easily give way to overt theatrics, but Pelphrey navigates the complexity with ease.

As great as Pelphrey’s performance is, and as entertainingly insane the story is as it descends into brutal chaos for Jason, the earlier stages of his life and just how he came to be such a con figure feel underdeveloped.  The manipulation at which he has such an ease in piloting never feels as if it’s connected organically to his character’s past, and as he’s such a fascinating personality it could have been to the film’s benefit that we expand beyond its 104 minute running time; yes, sometimes we want those longer session times.

All that being said, Gentile has created an engaging thriller about someone we wish we knew better, but – at this rate – never will know more.  The fact that this film’s ending is so open due to the real-life circumstances lends an eeriness to proceedings that so few true crime stories adhere to.


American Murderer is now available to rent and/or buy on major Digital platforms; Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, Telstra TV, and Apple TV.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.