With the rise of social media and the various technologies that enable the user to share their everyday lives readily, it is no surprise that films have utilized these elements to tell stories. Most often these stories tend to be of the horror variety a la the Unfriended franchise or e-Demon. American Hangman uses live streaming and social media to tell a harrowing tale, with a few cop thriller elements thrown in for good measure.
Writer-director Wilson Coneybeare’s film begins in a random basement where an elderly man (Donald Sutherland) and a middle-aged auto worker (Paul Braunstein) are chained up. The two men discuss how far they might have traveled and how many miles it could have taken. Then a mysterious man (Vincent Kartheiser) enters the room, turns on several cameras set up all around, and proceeds to make the kidnapped victims read from two newspapers to the live-streaming cameras.
This captures the attention of the police, a local hacker Darnley (Jess Salgueiro), and the news. The unidentified perpetrator then tells the men that he needs to make an example of one of them, in order to be taken seriously. He then kills the auto worker. The kidnapper and the other victim then discuss the legal system. See, this man believes he can prove that the still alive victim, who turns out is a judge, has put an innocent man to death, and he intends to use the court of public opinion to reach a verdict.
“…if the judge is found guilty, he will be put death then and there.”
If at the end of the sham court, which is being live streamed, the people find the judge innocent, he will be set free. However, if the judge is found guilty, he will be put death then and there. Now it is a race against time as the police are searching for who is doing this and where it is happening. Can they save the judge in time?
Some aspects in American Hangman are so straightforward that they are very easy to figure out, which does hurt the first half of the movie. The reveal of Sutherland’s character as a judge does not carry any weight, as it is established early on that he is a retired legal professional. To that end, what the man who did the kidnapping wants is also remarkably simple to suss out. Due to the mystery setup that the beginning of the movie takes, it is disappointing that the pieces kept in the shadows aren’t all that enthralling.
However, once everything is laid bare, and the court proceedings begin to dig deep into the corruption and ineptness that were prevalent in the police investigation and the judicial system the movie gets much more engrossing. Slowly, the layers that drove the kidnapper to these lengths are revealed, and they keep American Hangman in fairly original territory.
“…they keep American Hangman in fairly original territory.”
A lot of that is due to the remarkable cast. Sutherland brings a lot of weight and regret to his role, and a stumbled monologue at the end of the movie is riveting. Braunstein, despite the limited screen time, is also quite good. His confusion and anger over the situation he finds himself in is believable, and he sells the seriousness of it well. However, much of the dramatic weight falls onto Kartheiser’s shoulders, and he is terrific.
His well mannered, calm demeanor exudes a creepiness that makes his threats of harm feel genuine. The more falsehoods get stated or, the more the judge refuses to acknowledge this as a real court, the angrier and scarier he becomes. The supporting cast does an equally good job and makes one note characters reasonably relatable.
American Hangman makes a mystery out of a few things that are too easy to guess, so it takes a while to get going. However, thanks to sharp direction, an original take on the dramatic police procedural, and a truly excellent, very game cast, the movie is a worthwhile 100-minute watch.
American Hangman (2019) Directed by Wilson Coneybeare. Written by Wilson Coneybeare. Starring Donald Sutherland, Vincent Kartheiser, Paul Braunstein, Oliver Dennis, Jess Salgueiro.
7.5 out of 10 stars