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American Murderer

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.

Get it on Apple TV

Double Exposure: Hazing

Directed by Byron Hurt, Hazing explores the brutal culture of hazing with a particular focus on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Hurt meditates on his own experience with hazing in a fraternity to explore why hazing, despite it being illegal in many states, still persists in college culture. Several victims who have died as a result of hazing are profiled. Their stories are harrowing and you can’t help but feel for their families. These needless deaths are a result of an ingrained culture in which young people are socialized to endure violence as a means of attaining respect in their given group.  The initiated blindly trust the upperclassmen who then put them through barbaric rituals for no reason other than attaining pleasure from their own gross abuse of power.

Hazing has an important message to convey but it can get lost in a documentary format that is too long and a bit muddled. 

Recommended viewing: For Men Only (1952)

Hazing was part of the 2022 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

Double Exposure: The Family Statement

Directed by Grace Harper and Kate Stonehill, The Family Statement is a 15 minute compilation of WhatsApp messages exchanged by the Sackler family during the time of their lawsuit. The Sackler family is particularly notorious for their company Purdue Pharma, which marketed and distributed OxyContin and is considered the root cause for the deadly opioid epidemic. Its alleged that the Sacklers filed for bankruptcy during the lawsuit as a means to shield themselves from financial loss.

The WhatsApp message, released in December 2020, are shown against images of your typical American suburban landscapes. The messages appear in small white text making it difficult for the viewer to read. This, and the fact that the messages aren’t that revelatory, strips the film of any real shock value. Throughout the film there are also snippets of pre-court interviews with the Sacklers. Will appeal to anyone interested in getting more insight into the opioid epidemic.

The Family Statement was part of the 2022 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

Double Exposure: The Other Little Black Book

“Jeffrey Epstein got away with what he got away with because of who was in his address book.”

— John Cook, The Insider

Directed by Barbara Corbellini Duarte and Mark Adam Miller, The Other Little Black Book is a fascinating short documentary about a recently discovered “little black book” that may have been owned by Jeffrey Epstein. 

In the mid-1990s, Denise Ondayko discovered  the address book on a 5th Avenue sidewalk in New York City. Decades later, collector of the obscurities, Christopher Helali, took ownership of the book, sending it off to Insider for authentication.  That little book is a small window into a world of power and corruption.

The Other Little Black Book was part of the 2022 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival

Nashville Film Festival: Carol & Johnny

Not all bank robbers are like the ones you see in the movies. Many are petty criminals, just average folks, who are in a financial bind and the idea of a quick payout is just too alluring to pass up. That’s what happened with Johnny Williams. After a stint in jail, he tried to make ends meet for him and his wife Carol as an independent carpet cleaner. When a 1983 car accident sidelined him, he found himself in desperate need of money. Just a few years later he began one of the “longest running strings of unsolved bank robberies in the history of the FBI.” 56 robberies from 1986 until 1994. A slip up landed him and his partner-in-crime Carol in the hoosegow. He got life and she got 20 years.

Directed by Colin Barnicle, Carol & Johnny begins shortly after Johnny Williams was released from jail in 2021. He’s integrating back into society, checking in with his parole officer and living in a halfway house. Carol has been out for years. After suffering from a medical mishap, she continues to thrive with the help of her family and is determined to tell her life story by way of the documentary and a book. 

The documentary interviews both Carol and Johnny, as well as the former FBI officer who tracked and finally caught Johnny. It shares the couple’s individual life stories as well as  Johnny’s incredible criminal career. The film depends a lot on a “will they or won’t they” element regarding a potential reunion between Carol and Johnny.  What the film does effectively is demonstrate that there are two sides to every story and that not everyone is a reliable narrator. It’s not a terribly engrossing film but a good watch for those who enjoy stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

Carol & Johnny premiered at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival.

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