The True Crime world is messy. Over the past several years, a spring of podcasts, YouTube channels, Facebook groups and message boards have popped up giving True Crime fanatics a place to indulge in their favorite mysteries. The creators who run these accounts are passionate about what they do and often self-taught in the art of investigative journalism and content creation. However, their work falls into a gray area where good intentions and questionable objectives converge. And while the intention is to be helpful, the process can also be hurtful, especially when the True Crime content creator oversteps boundaries.
Documentarian Chris Kasick’s film Citizen Sleuth profiles one True Crime podcaster whose investigation into a local case begins to unravel. Emily Nestor is the host behind the popular True Crime podcast Mile Marker 181 which is devoted to the investigation of the mysterious death of Jaleayah Davis. Nestor is a fantastic storyteller and with her podcast she expertly wove a tale of small-town intrigue and police negligence. Her goal with the podcast was to solve a murder but her years of investigation ultimately led her down a different path.
Citizen Sleuth navigates some murky waters when the documentarian becomes part of the story. And just like Nestor’s podcast, this documentary evolved into something different than what was originally intended. Nestor is fascinating. She’s vulnerable and raw. Her story makes for a compelling watch.
Citizen Sleuth had its premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.
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 Ina 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.
The brutal Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) resulted in the deaths of many civilians, especially those of the indigenous Mayan population. In the days after the war, Bishop Juan Gerardi became an outspoken activist for the Mayan people, seeking justice for the crimes against humanity and giving a voice to the voiceless. He was a truly remarkable individual and one of the key members of REMHI, an organization that sought to bring to light the many human rights violations enacted by the military and government. This unfortunately made him a target and on April 26th, 1998 Bishop Gerardi was brutally murdered.
Directed by Paul Taylor, The Art of Political Murder investigates Bishop Gerardi’s state ordered assassination, the mishandling of the crime scene, the theories behind what exactly happened and the arrest and trial of the three assassins. George Clooney served as one of the film’s executive producers and the documentary is based on Francisco Goldman’s book of the same name. It features interviews with journalists, experts and those who knew Bishop Gerardi both personally and professionally. There isn’t much by way of background on either the Guatemalan Civil War or how Bishop Gerardi came to be involved with his activism. Instead the focus here is on the crime itself. In essence one could call this a biography of a crime as it dissects all the details of the murder, investigation, media coverage, trial, etc. I would have preferred more background on Bishop Gerardi but this was an interesting approach.
The Art of Political Murder is well worth the watch for anyone interested in true crime in general or Guatemalan history in particular.
The Art of the Political Murder recently screened at the 2020 virtual Double Exposure Film Festival.
26-year old PhD student Yingying Zhang went missing on June 9th, 2017. After graduating from Peking University, Yingying traveled from China to study Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Yingying was full of wonder and hope. She was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Xiaolin and excited about this new phase in life. She documented those early days in the US in her journal. Mere weeks after she arrived, she made the fatal mistake of getting into a car with a stranger. She had missed the bus and was late for an appointment. A man claiming to be an off-duty cop offered her a ride. Yingying has never been heard from again.
Directed and produced by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, Finding Yingying is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman with a bright future and a family struggling to come to terms with their loss. The documentary features extensive interviews and footage of Yingying’s boyfriend, parents, brother, aunt and friends as they search for answers and prepare for the criminal trial that would come two years later. Filmmaker Shi graduated from the same university as Yingying. Although they had never met, when Jiayan heard of Yingying’s disappearance she felt an immediate connection and a strong desire to help. About her filmmaking approach, Shi said:
“Finding Yingying was made in a vérité observational filmmaking style… I wanted to allow the audience to feel that they were experiencing the painful and challenging journey along with the family.”
Jiayan “Jenny” Shi
Shi humanizes her subject. As is the case with many true crime stories, violent acts and perpetrators are glorified to satisfy the audience’s hunger for salacious details. This is not the case with Finding Yingying. In fact, this documentary is the complete opposite of that. The majority of the film is focused solely on Yingying and her family. We learn that Yingying was inquisitive, thoughtful and kind. Her parents traveled to the US for the first time to help search for Yingying and held out hope that she was still alive. Shi becomes a living representative of Yingying through this film. She reads segments of Yingying’s diary, bringing her voice to the forefront. Shi said:
“my voice and presence are integrated into the film to show my deep personal connection to Yingying, and my deep desire to tell her and her family’s story beyond the headlines. I want to preserve her legacy.”
Jiayan “Jenny” Shi
The murderer, fellow PhD student Brend Christensen is given very little attention, as he should be. We learn as much as we need to about the investigation, how the FBI tracked him down with surveillance footage and how they employed his girlfriend to secretly record Christensen. The details of Yingying’s murder are kept to a minimum.
Finding Yingying turns the focus away from the murder and on to the victim, an inquisitive, thoughtful and kind young woman who brought joy to those around her. It’s a beautiful documentary that will make you think twice about how true crime films portray victims.