Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and Evan Peters’ subsequent Golden Globes win for Best Actor – Limited Series, Anthology Series, or Television Motion Picture kicked the conversation about the role of true crime in pop culture into high gear. As I always insist, it is right and good to interrogate the things we love, maybe especially the things we love, so it’s fair to ask what the purpose of dramatized true crime is, if it can ever be done “right”, and what is owed the victims of serious crime in the process. Despite how it’s often talked about amidst the podcast boom of the 2010s, true crime is not a phenomenon. People have always been interested in the dark deeds of others—Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-ridden, blood-soaked car was an attraction at state fairs for years after their deaths, and there are historical newspaper reports of courthouses overrun with onlookers during various “trials of the century”—but cinema offers a unique combination of veracity and fictionalization that blurs the lines between a natural human impulse toward the macabre, and our love of a good yarn.
Enter American Murderer, filmmaker Matthew Gentile’s docudrama about Jason Derek Brown, a con man who graduated to murder in the 2000s and ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Written and directed by Gentile, Murderer stars Tom Pelphrey as Brown, and the film unwinds out of order—which is a bit frustrating at times, honestly—and traces Brown’s devolving criminal career through the 1990s and early 2000s, leading up to the fateful day in November 2004 when he (allegedly) murdered armored car driver Robert Palomares, stealing the $56,000 cash in Palomares’ possession. To this day, Brown has not been caught.
Murderer is smart about its depiction of true crime. Gentile, working with cinematographer Kalilah Robinson, shoots his film in dingy greys and ugly browns, almost like a TV procedural except the contrast is deliberate. Brown bigs himself up, talks a good game, and sees himself as the hero of his story—he’s the kind of con man who “believes his own bullsh-t” according to his mother—but Gentile never presents him that way. There is always the way Brown talks about himself, grandiose and glamorous, and the way we see him, scraping by in bland suburbia, his crimes banal fraud schemes, hardly the stuff of Scarface-style legend. Pelphrey’s portrayal of Brown is similarly knotty, swinging between gleefully unhinged and bleak; he is excellent at playing a loser who is desperate to be anything else, and that desperation ultimately becomes the dominant note of his performance.
This is true crime that does not let its subject off the hook, while also dodging the typical thriller traps of a cat and mouse, cops-and-robbers game. Ryan Phillippe, one of cinema’s most underrated little bitches, is in full little bitch mode as FBI Special Agent Lance Leising, who is hardly the gung-ho hero type himself. Early on, the camera zooms in on Leising’s Bush/Cheney key ring, which not only sets us in the correct era, but also gives us permission to see Leising as a sh-thead. In a more typical movie, the dogged, determined FBI agent would be more heroic, here, he’s as much of an asshole as anyone, he just has a badge. There really aren’t any heroes in this story, as Brown makes accomplices and victims of his most well-meaning supporters, and even the “good guy” law enforcement types kind of suck.
But this is also why some people might struggle with American Murderer. It’s not sexy true crime dolled up for guilt-free consumption. Murderer is uncomfortable, never presenting a traditional protagonist to root for. It avoids a neat narrative, and while that makes for a somewhat oblique film, it also shows one way of dramatizing true crime without falling into the Dahmer hole of (inadvertently) glamorizing a monster. People will always want to hear true crime stories, asking that they simply not be told is not a reasonable solution to the moral question of how to tell stories about terrible things with sensitivity and respect. But American Murderer offers one possible blueprint, frustrating as it might be, which is to not overinvest in cop characters—thus avoiding copaganda, the FBI is utterly ineffectual here—and to not let the perpetrator off the hook for deliberate choices.
There is no sense in American Murderer that Brown is some kind of “other”, an inevitable monster created by forces beyond his control. A childhood flashback establishes that he inherited his father’s penchant for the con, but throughout the film we see Brown faced with opportunities, and always making the most self-interested, destructive choice—he becomes this thing of his own volition. The lack of glamor, the lack of resolution, the lack of a traditional heroic arc—on either side of the legal line—will frustrate some. But as a true crime aficionado who is constantly questioning my own interest in these stories and what I get out of them, I found it to be an interesting portrait of “one who got away”, without giving into the worst impulses of contemporary true crime.
American Murderer is available on demand in the US and Canada and is in theaters worldwide.