I love the game Hangman, and play it all the time with my youngest. He only uses two words – POO and BOOBIES – which should speed things up. Though sadly he can’t spell, which makes the game last almost as long as the one in this movie; and though no one dies we do all lose the will to live.
You may feel like that while watching Hangman; though if you can forget you’ve ever seen Silence Of The Lambs, or Se7en, or any of the cop / forensics shows that have been TV schedule staples for years now, it is reasonably watchable.
Here, the game is a device used by a serial killer – who has presumably seen all those movies and TV shows – to taunt the detectives and journalist on his tail, though for some reason no one really tries to work out what word the killer is trying to spell.
Ruiney (Karl Urban, who is apparently not married to Nicole Kidman after all) is a bereaved cop, his wife murdered horrifically a few months before. He’s ex-FBI and cagey about his return to police work, claiming with practised ease that “for me it’s all the same. Still catching bad guys”.
Christi Davies (Brittany Snow) is a Pulitzer-nominated New York Times journalist, back in her Georgia home town to shadow the local police for an article.
Archer (Al Pacino) was once a cop, now retired after decades of tracking down killers and having to tell their victims’ families the horrible details of how their loved ones died.
Christi strikes it lucky, if you can call it that, being on hand when news of the first death comes through. And it’s not just any murderer but – yes! – a game-loving killer with a dash of added sadism, who loves taunting the cops.
The first victim, Cary, is a young teacher found hanging from a tree next to the elementary school where she works. There’s a letter O carved into her chest, and inside the school two child-sized mannequins facing a blackboard featuring a game of Hangman, with Ruiney and Archer’s cop numbers nearby.
Each victim comes with clues to the next one, and it’s a race against time (we know this as a digital clock keeps appearing at random places on screen, which at first I mistook for a reflection from something in my house) to get to them before they die.
Somehow also linked is Ruiney’s dead wife, though we realise this a long time before he does (honestly Ruiney, how many spelling-bee champ murderers can there be in one small Georgia town?)
There are a lot of nasty details: victims alive while being mutated, that sort of thing. So I was relieved, if that’s an appropriate response, that the victims turn out to be women and men; it’s not all beautiful 20-somethings with letters carved across their breasts, and they are not really the target, simply a means to an end.
It doesn’t seem very likely that a serial killer would be tracked by three people, only one of whom is an actual detective employed by the police force. And their world must surely be one without films or TV shows about dedicated cops, nosy journos and plucky forensic scientists, as poor Archer and Ruiney always seem to be a few bloodied footsteps behind the killer.
It’ll be obvious by now how formulaic, derivative and cliche-ridden Hangman is – it plays very much like a compressed series of Bones from a decade ago.
And though I can understand why everyone except Al Pacino would sign up, simply for a chance to work with Al Pacino, I’m less clear why Al Pacino himself agreed to it.
At one point the killer sniffs a victim and I half-expected him to say appreciatively, like a Superdrug Hannibal Lecter, some more modern version of “hmmmm L’Air Du Temps”, perhaps inserting the current favourite perfume instead (Just Justin? Cologne De Kardashian?).
Christi seems rather clueless for a Pulitzer-nomiated journalist on one of America’s greatest papers. So desperate for a story she almost gets shot by the good guys near the start, I can’t say I would have missed her.
Pacino is always fun to watch, even if at times it seems he’s phoning in this role from his sofa while doing a Sudoku. For a long stretch his Archer is profoundly irritating, softly-spoken and given to throwing Ruiney little titbits gleaned from experience without actually helping much. He’s rather an ambiguous character and Archer himself seems initially ambivalent about the crimes, as if it is just a bit of a game.
I liked Sarah Shahi as the precinct captain, an interesting character with a backstory that had the makings of a good counterweight to the rather lurid plot, though as it stands she’s been shoehorned in to shout at Christi about best practice.
Urban is a good actor hobbled by a daft script which at times even he can’t make sound believable (at one point he’s overheard while on the phone and I thought the character was actually pretending to be on the phone).
Having said that, I will confess to having a bit of a thing for men who reverse confidently with their arm round the front passenger seat, which Ruiney does with great aplomb, though I realise that’s a bit niche when it comes to persuading you to rent or buy this movie.
If you watch Hangman in the right frame of mind it is reasonably diverting, and you may well enjoy spotting the cliches and tropes. There are plenty of red herrings, blind alleys and twists, some of which genuinely left me wondering who might have something to hide, or be a double crosser. (Though some were simply pilot threads left hanging.)
Unfortunately we find out a bit too soon who the killer is, which really leaves us just with the same hackneyed story we’ve seen so many times before. And the final twist is, unfortunately, one that will make you sigh rather than scream.