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American Hangman

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
American Hangman Movie Poster Image
Pessimistic, violent, but effective cautionary thriller.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 99 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Raises many points, but few come through very clearly. One is that people don't trust one another; there needs to be proof of intent for everything. Another is that the justice system is a failure, another that society as a whole is apathetic, cynical, selfish. But offers no viable solution or alternative to these issues.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Even heroes in this movie are amazingly cynical, with very little hope for goodness of people. They're all convinced that everything is corrupt, that not much can be done to improve things.

Violence

Character's thumb cut off, with heavy bleeding. Character shot in head (head covered by cloth bag). Characters abducted, imprisoned, chained, handcuffed. Spoken descriptions of a teen girl being kidnapped, killed. Images of bunker where she was held. Character zapped with cattle prod. References to the movie Saw.

Sex

Sex-related verbal references.

Language

Frequent use of words including "f--k" and "s--t." Also "ass," "c--ksucker," "motherf----r," "goddamn," "crap," plus "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ" (as exclamations).

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Hangman is a thriller about a kidnapper (Vincent Kartheiser) who tries to set the record straight on a murder by holding a "trial" via social media. Expect graphic violence: A thumb is cut off (with heavy bleeding), and a character is shot in the head (the head is covered by a cloth bag). Characters are also imprisoned, handcuffed, chained, and zapped with a cattle prod. There are verbal descriptions of a teen girl being kidnapped and killed, as well as some brief sex-related talk. Language also includes frequent use of "f--k," "s--t," and more. The film's ideas aren't always terribly original or concise, but its execution is satisfying and enjoyable; Donald Sutherland co-stars.

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What's the story?

In AMERICAN HANGMAN, Ron (Paul Braunstein) and Judge Straight (Donald Sutherland) are abducted. They're handcuffed and held in a basement, cameras pointed at them. Their abductor (Vincent Kartheiser), who keeps to the shadows, tells them that they have five minutes to figure out their connection. The judge gets the answer right, but the abductor still shows that he's prepared to commit brutal acts of violence. Slowly, the plot is revealed. That morning, a man was put to death for the kidnapping and murder of a teen girl; the two men's abductor insists that the wrong man died for that crime, and he intends to put the judge on trial for this deadly error. The "trial" will be streaming online, and viewers will be the "jury," with the capability to object or sustain, as well as to render a verdict. But if the judge can keep his wits, there may be a way out.

Is it any good?

This modest but pessimistic drama about social ills may feel a little familiar, but the intelligent banter, a superior central performance, and one or two likable supporters keep it crackling along. Written and directed by Wilson Coneybeare, American Hangman follows in the footsteps of many other recent movies that use social media and the internet to demonstrate society's cynicism, selfishness, and apathy -- and it can be a bit much. But at least the movie also builds a rhythm, doling out information and surprises slowly, so that it becomes somewhat pleasurable as well.

With the exception of various shocked/aghast minor characters watching the video stream, Coneybeare stays mainly in the moody basement, conjuring up unseen visuals through expressive dialogue. Sutherland's performance is impressive as he attempts to teach the law to the viewing masses in a way that will be both understandable and dynamic; he falters and stammers as he searches for the right way to say things. Oliver Dennis is appealing as a smart, moralistic police lieutenant who's about to retire but is slowly piecing together the case; he's more like a wise turtle than a grizzled cop. The movie's daring final note strikes a bit of a minor chord, but on the whole, American Hangman gets a "not guilty" plea.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about American Hangman's violence. How much is shown? How graphic is it? How does it compare to the verbal descriptions of violence against a teen girl? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • What does the movie have to say about social media? Is it a force for change? A force for evil? Both at the same time? If so, how?

  • The kidnapper claims that there must be proof of intent for every action, that no one believes or trusts anyone today. Do you agree? Why or why not?

  • The judge claims that justice consists of people who are flawed doing the best they can and coming as close as they can, and as long as it feels like there's a conclusion, everything is OK. Do you agree? Why or why not?

  • Is this movie optimistic or pessimistic? Why do you say that?

Movie details

For kids who love thrills

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