Movie Review: Se7en Meets Scrabble in ‘Hangman’
If you ever wanted to see a version of Se7en where the killer’s clues are based on a children’s word game instead of the seven deadly sins, well, this new thriller might be just up your alley.
In Hangman, Al Pacino plays retired police detective Archer, who bides his time by doing crossword puzzles, in Latin, outside of a donut shop. But he gets pulled back into a murder investigation that'll really put his word game skills to the test with the discovery of his badge number etched into a classroom desk at a crime scene alongside the titular children's game.
The school desk also includes the badge number of Detective Ruiney (Karl Urban), who was close to Archer before the brutal and unsolved murder of his wife that may or may not have crucial significance to the current investigation.
You see, ‘Hangman’, as he’s quickly referred to, etches a letter by knife into the chests of his victims, who are then hung out to die at at 11 each night. Helpfully, he provides the detectives a childlike hangman drawing that fills the letter into a grid at every crime scene. That seems to make the body mutilation gratuitous, but we’re not playing Jumble here.
Hangman (played by Joe Anderson, who replaced Michael Pitt as Mason Verger in TV’s Hannibal) also leaves a trail of contrived clues so our detectives can reach the next crime scene just in time to see the next victim die, and spot the master criminal getting away while being too involved in detective work to pursue him.
What’s he building up to? While the motives and m.o. in Hangman are overly-elaborate and illogical - a staple in this kind of thing - I must admit some begrudging fascination with the central word game. While the detectives seem have little interest in solving the riddle, I found myself drawn into the nuttiness with each letter revealed on the board. Is it... Aviation? Aversion?
It’s ultimately meaningless, of course - and was never solvable for the audience, though Pacino’s character should have got it earlier - but the crazy central gimmick here helps Hangman become a little more engaging than this sort of procedural usually turns out to be.
One element here even more illogical than the killer, however, is the inclusion of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist played by Brittany Snow. She stumbles upon the first victim while on a ride-along with Ruiney and, for some reason, sticks around through the rest of the investigation as the detectives track the killer.
The journalist tramples over crime scenes throughout the movie but winds up doing most of the detective work, so it evens out. But Snow’s performance is sincere and oh-so-stiff, and stands out next to her hammy co-stars, who seem to know what kind of material they’re working with.
That includes Anderson’s foaming-at-the-mouth psycho killer, a late reveal (despite being one of only five above-the-line acting credits) who brings some loony energy to the film’s climax, and Urban’s stoic blowhard hero, who makes for a suitable presence in the lead.
And then there’s Pacino, putting in some appealingly over-the-top work with a frequently incoherent Southern twang (Hangman was filmed in Atlanta, and set in Monroe, Georgia). After phoning in roles throughout the 2000s, Pacino has had a minor career resurgence in recent years, and gives this movie a lot more than he gets out of it.
And as the Hangman killer taunts his victims with lines like “I’m about to make you a double-value letter” (a Scrabble reference, but who’s counting), I suspect the filmmakers know what they’re dealing with here, too.
Director Johnny Martin, a longtime stuntman, also made the Nicolas Cage thriller Vengeance: A Love Story, released earlier this year. Hangman is a far slicker production, but trades in some of the film’s rough-hewn charm in favor of a more generic approach.
While one shouldn’t recommend Hangman as much more than a mild diversion, there’s some fun to be had here, and the loony central premise helps make this more engaging than a pair of similar Pacino detective thrillers released a decade ago, Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes.