'American Hangman': Film Review

An intriguing high-stakes debate derailed by extraneous action.
1/4/2019

Donald Sutherland is judged by the Internet in Wilson Coneybeare's drama.

A vigilante puts the justice system on trial in Wilson Coneybeare's American Hangman, kidnapping the judge who presided over a high-profile murder case and letting the Internet decide if he did his job well or not. A chin-scratching B picture that fares best when it sticks with stars Donald Sutherland and Vincent Kartheiser, it gets less convincing the farther it strays from the two-hander at its core. Still, Sutherland fans will relish spending so much time with him once the pic moves from limited theatrical release to video services.

The setup is so familiar its characters point it out more than once: After two men who don't know each other (Sutherland and Paul Braunstein) have been abducted and locked in a dank concrete room by a captor (Kartheiser) who won't show his face, the younger man keeps making nervous references to a "stupid fucking movie" viewers will remember as Saw. But Kartheiser's mystery man (whose face we'll soon see, albeit through the combed-down hair unimaginative films use to identify disturbed American loners) has a different kind of deadly game in mind: After killing the younger man to prove his seriousness, he puts Sutherland's Judge Oliver Straight on a witness stand in front of live-streaming video cameras and asks his online audience to decide if he should be killed for handing down the death penalty to an innocent man.

Though it isn't too hard to guess just how the kidnapper knows the wrong man was executed, Coneybeare's script has some fun with the mystery, letting viewers stay a step ahead of the players onscreen. More pleasure comes from the philosophical banter between the leads, as Sutherland maintains a professorial dignity while explaining to Kartheiser all the ways in which this kangaroo court can't substitute for the real thing. The actor outclasses the material just as the judge deserves better than the basement, but both comport themselves with intelligence and sincerity.

Although the film's central argument would be far punchier if it involved race and class or other of the blind spots afflicting crime and punishment in America, it does evince the writer-director's seriousness about the material. Unfortunately, cutaways to the outside world increasingly suggest the limits of Coneybeare's knowledge. As we watch police detectives argue over how to stop the crime they're watching online, or eavesdrop on the ambitious newscaster trying to make herself the face of this drama, Coneybeare appears to be constructing workplace dramas based on things he knows only from other, better movies. It doesn't help that most of the film's acting talent is locked in that basement; the tension level drops palpably every time we cut away from that standoff.

Perhaps it's excessive to complain that the film's central conceit is a far less frightening vision of Internet justice than the one we see around us every day. Here, the world is watching two parties, each of whom lets the other defend his position, and then voting yes or no. None of the faceless jury members get to hijack the argument with lies or mischaracterizations; votes can't be swayed by Twitter mobs. In that way, American Hangman is an old-fashioned, almost endearingly innocent film — however bleak its ultimate verdict may be.

Production company: Hangman Justice Productions
Distributor: Aqute Media
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Vincent Kartheiser, Oliver Dennis, Jess Salgueiro, Al Sapienza, Lucia Walters, Paul Braunstein
Director-screenwriter: Wilson Coneybeare
Producers: Wilson Coneybeare, Meredith Fowler, Jim Sternberg
Executive producers: Marina Cordoni, Kirk D'Amico, Mark Gingras, Matthew Willson
Director of photography: Mark Irwin
Production designer: Diana Abbatangelo
Costume designer: Amanda Lee Shaw
Editor: Michael Pierro
Composer: Dillon Baldassero
Casting director: Nancy Green-Keyes

99 minutes