I generally believe it to be a bad idea for a film to reference much better movies in an attempt to gain audience favor by making itself seem more clever than it is. More often than not, it just makes the person watching want to watch the referenced instead of the thing they’re currently taking in. American Hangman, for instance, opens much like Saw does, with two men chained in what looks like a basement. One of the characters even mentions what their situation is like “that movie” before insulting it, as if to prove this film’s dominance.
American Hangman isn’t like Saw, though, thankfully enough. It’s a courtroom drama. One of the two men captured is a former judge (Donald Sutherland), while the other is just fodder to prove that the captor (Vincent Kartheiser) is serious about his intentions. He’s going to broadcast a fake trial to the world in order to prove that the retired judge made a judgment error some time ago that led to someone else’s death, and he’s going to let the viral audience decide whether or not that is worth the judge’s execution.
You know, this is 2019, and we as a society tend to let the court of public appeal dictate the careers and metaphorical (not literal, not yet) lives of people who have been accused of doing wrong. So, it would make sense to make a movie exploring that, its ramifications, and whether or not that’s just. American Hangman isn’t that movie, getting bogged down in details about a case we don’t care about involving people we don’t know instead of having intellectual or thematic depth, but there’s the potential there and someday we might get that movie.
Mostly, the film consists of Vincent Kartheiser delivering a monologue, then Donald Sutherland delivering a monologue, then a cut to someone outside the “courtroom” reacting to the new information. We follow some police officers who were involved with the original case, there’s a hacker who helps them out, there are some patrons at a cafe watching this all this happen, as well as a newscaster trying to become a sensation by covering the various unfoldings.
Instead of focusing on the viral aspect or the way that public perception works in the internet age, American Hangman instead focuses on the failings of the justice system … but not in any substantial way. You’re unlikely to come away from the film with a different understanding than what you came in with. That is, assuming, of course, that you don’t believe it to be perfect. Because it’s not. Statistically speaking, some people who are found guilty by a jury of their peers are later proven innocent with new evidence. That’s just a fact.
It’s hard to say there’s a ton to recommend with American Hangman. It spends a lot of its time meandering about a case that we struggle to care about all make a belabored point about the American justice system and capital punishment, ignoring the potentially interesting issue of the court of public appeal vs. criminal court. The actors are fine and deliver their monologues with conviction but it’s not very entertaining, thought-provoking, or moving.
Conclusion: American Hangman is a courtroom drama for the viral age that misses the mark.
Recommendation: American Hangman references Saw, and even though it’s not like Saw, you’re better off watching that.