Jason Derek Brown has been a fugitive from the FBI since November 2004 when he shot and killed Robert Keith Palomares, an armored car guard, outside of an AMC theater. A few years after the murder, he was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, alongside notable criminals like Osama Bin Laden. But Jason Derek Brown wasn’t like the other people on the list. He was a young blonde-haired surfer guy and former Mormon missionary who had an uncanny resemblance to Sean Penn. Not who you’d expect to be a top fugitive. Brown has eluded the FBI to this day and his whereabouts are unknown. Recently he was taken off the top ten list and replaced with another criminal who has since been apprehended. While we don’t know what happened to Jason Derek Brown in the days that followed the murder, there is still much to gather about his journey from grifter to fugitive.
Written and directed by debut filmmaker Matthew Gentile, American Murderer examines Jason Derek Brown’s origin story and the extenuating circumstances that led to his crime and eventual disappearance. Tom Pelphrey stars as Brown, a charismatic con man who portrays himself different depending on whom he’s interacting with. We learn about his estrangement from his mother Jeanne (Jacki Weaver), his criminal father’s disappearance, and his relationships with his trusting yet weary siblings David (Paul Schneider) and Jamie (Shantel VanSanten). Brown develops a relationship with Melanie (Idina Menzel), his landlady and neighbor, who believes that Brown is a trustworthy guy who loves kids and is flush with cash. But the truth is Brown is in serious debt and always working on his next scheme to get the money he needs to pay off his debtors. His story is told in flashback sequences along with present day, 2004, when Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe) of the FBI searches for Brown with full confidence that he won’t be a fugitive for long.
American Murderer is a fantastic character study that offers a nuanced look at the making of a criminal. Tom Pelphrey does an incredible job portraying Jason Derek Brown as an anti-hero rather than a villain. He brings an intensity to the role that is much desired and needed. While the performances overall were a mixed bag, I did enjoy Ryan Phillippe’s portrayal as the FBI agent. He plays polar opposite to Pelphrey’s manic intensity with a fierce determination to get his guy. The cat-and-mouse chase between Pelphrey and Phillippe drives the plot whereas the interpersonal relationships enriches the overall portrait of the protagonist.
The movie is mostly set in 2004 but also flashes back as far as 1994. With the setting, there are subtle hints about the era including a Bush Cheney keychain, flip phones, older computers, etc. While I don’t have a trained eye for filmmaking techniques, I did notice that there was more of a classic approach to the camera work and editing; no drone shots, no flashy cuts and no aesthetic overlays. I felt that American Murderer really captured the era without being too obvious about it.
Filmmaker Matthew Gentile has said he was influenced by noir film including In a Lonely Place (1950) which I can see especially with the relationship between Jason Derek Brown and his neighbor Melanie.
American Murderer is available to rent on digital.