“American Hangman” belongs to that species of grade-Z movie that’s at once grisly and pretentious. It’s trash with a lot on its mind. Most of the film is set in a dim concrete bunker, where Henry, an “intellectual” psychopath played by Vincent Kartheiser in the heaviest bowl cut I have ever seen (his inky bangs hang down to the point that they threaten to devour his face), has shackled a pair of prisoners as though setting them up for a game of “Saw.” (The comparison is so obvious that it’s referenced by the film in the opening five minutes.) He gives the mouthier of the two prisoners a series of electric shocks, then cuts off his finger with a garden shears, a few minutes before shooting him dead (which comes, frankly, as a relief).
But “American Hangman” isn’t torture porn. The movie turns into a dialectical showdown between the psycho and his other hostage, Oliver Straight (Donald Sutherland), a retired judge who, in Henry’s eyes, committed an unpardonable crime when he presided over the high-profile trial of a man who was found guilty for murdering a 14-year-old girl. The killer, who seemed to be from central casting (freak hobbies, garden shed, sinister high-school photo), received the death penalty. But, in fact, he didn’t commit the crime, and the judge, in Henry’s eyes, was guilty for sentencing an innocent man to die.
Henry has a special reason for knowing that the killer was innocent; it’s one that the audience can spot a mile away. Yet the most telling twist of “American Hangman” — its claim to heaviosity — is that everything that goes on between the two characters is being live-streamed on social media. Henry puts the judge on “trial,” having him sit behind a mockup of a witness stand, and it’s up to an escalating mob of Internet viewers to deliver their verdict on his culpability.
“American Hangman” is a meditation on crime, guilt, and crowd-sourced voyeurism in the age of YouTube that plays like it was co-written by Dostoyevsky and Larry Cohen. We hardly need an exploitation film to point out that there are men on death row who are innocent. But Henry’s argument — and the film’s — is broader than that. Boldly, Henry spouts his manifesto of what he thinks the legal system comes down to: sloppy inept police work, the search for scapegoats, the chronic immorality of what we like to pretend is justice. It’s like listening to a bar-stool anarchist at closing time.
Kartheiser, who has not exactly ascended the ladder of visibility since his “Mad Men” days of playing Pete, the office weasel who looked like a chipmunk, does a not-half-bad impersonation of the sort of clenched wing nut who thinks he’s the only one who sees reality. Yet watching “American Hangman,” you wish the filmmaker, Wilson Coneybeare, were a little less invested in using Henry as a mouthpiece. The main draw here is Donald Sutherland, in silky white hair, who has never lost his gift for reeling in an audience. He makes the judge a voice of mellifluous reason who, beneath it all, will say whatever it takes to justify himself. It’s his unflappability in the face of Henry’s vigilante spiels that gives the movie its glimmer of watchability.
“American Hangman” should probably have stayed a two-hander, though that would have made it less commercial (i.e., less of an official thriller for the VOD audience). Each time Conybeare strays outside the bunker — to the police station, to scenes with image-obsessed anchors from a CNN-like network — the film is done in by its cardboard indictment of The System. Trial by social media is a good subject for a movie, but not when it spends so much time smacking its lips at the corruption it’s pointing its finger at.