Unnecessary subplots derail the engaging but uneven '13 Sins'
13 Sins Dimension Films
Director: Daniel Stamm
Screenplay: David Birke and Daniel Stamm, based on the 2006 film 13 Beloved, by Matthew Chookiat Sakveerakul
Starring: Mark Webber, Rutina Wesley, Ron Perlman, Devon Graye, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Tom Bower and George Coe
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
13 Sins seems like a movie that should have been made a decade ago. And it's not alone. It's part of an unofficial trend that seems strangely out of date - the "How Far Would You Go for Cash" subgenre. It seems like it would have taken hold right around the turn of the century when competition-based reality television became popular. Instead, it took more than a decade for movies like Cheap Thrills, Would You Rather and 13 Sins to be made. If satire is indeed the intent, it sure took a long time to get around to it.
Then again, maybe it's not so much reality TV inspiring these films as it is the 2007-08 financial crisis and the attention now being paid to the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. All three of the films I mentioned attempt to say something or another on that very subject. Greed, survival and socioeconomic imbalance are timeless themes, so really these movies could have been made anytime. But nevertheless it's been a curious trend over the last year or two.
In a broader and/or structural sense, the films in the same ballpark as Raze, 13 Tzameti, The Game, The Hunger Games or even Se7en. The gist in these three cases is generally the same - desperate people given the chance at great wealth if they complete an increasingly dangerous series of physical and/or moral challenges. While I haven't been particularly fond of any of the three just yet, I have to give 13 Sins credit for at least taking things in bizarre and increasingly complicated directions, even if it ultimately miscalculates itself. My biggest complaint about the popular Cheap Thrills and the lesser-known Would You Rather is the lack of imagination to the various dares and challenges. 13 Sins is more interesting in that sense, both in the sometimes non-sequitorial strangeness of the tasks, and - in particular - the degree in which the stakes increase with each round. Director and co-writer Daniel Stamm also complicates the rules of the game as it moves along, making its completion not only more morally heinous but more logistically difficult.
The desperate character in question is Elliot (Mark Webber), a low-level sales rep who has an inordinate number of people relying on him financially. He has a pregnant soon-to-be wife (Rutina Wesley). He has a mentally handicapped brother (Devon Graye) that he takes care of, as well as a bitter and unpleasant father (Tom Bower) who's getting evicted from his senior living facility and will have to come live in his son's apartment. It's a lot for one man to handle, especially one who doesn't seem to make a whole lot of money.
And he's about to make even less. When he goes to work expecting a promotion, he's instead greeted with his own firing, which will leave him (and, more importantly, his brother) without the insurance he needs, not to mention the salary. But a chance at salvation comes in the form of an anonymous phone call. On the other end of the line is the enthusiastically detached voice of a would-be game-show host - the kind of half-friendly, half-creepy voice that would make Richard Dawson proud - who informs Elliot that he has the chance to win millions if he completes a series of 13 challenges. Provided, of course, he plays within the rules - which includes not telling anyone about the game, nor interfering with it in any way.
It begins innocently enough, as the first challenge is merely to kill the fly that's been buzzing around his face. He does it, and $1,000 is deposited into his account. Moments later, for a few thousand dollars more, he's tasked with eating the fly. And before long, he's being forced to go to a coffee shop and make like Weekend at Bernie's with a corpse he discovers in a run-down apartment.
And that's only round five or so.
The biggest missteps by Stamm and David Birke - who adapted a 2006 Thai film with a similar premise - come in the subplots that threaten to organize the film into a more traditional procedural or conspiracy thriller. First, we get the local cop, Chilcoat (Ron Perlman), hot on Elliot's trail as his strange behaviors start popping up on crime sheets. And then, we get the mad-sounding ramblings of a man named Vogler (noted character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince) who believes he's put together the pieces of a massive, global conspiracy. We know he's right, but his inclusion in the narrative strips the film of much of its eerie mystery - and worse yet, the same point is implied more subtly (and thus more effectively) in the main storyline's later developments.
Those side elements wind up costing the film a lot, as it's never able to fully get past their largely needless contrivance. And they're at least partially responsible for the irrational mess of an ending. The climax not only doesn't hold up to any degree of scrutiny, but it's emotionally insincere and bizarrely tone-deaf as well. I admired 13 Sins in fits and starts - there's some real ingenuity to a few of its wrinkles, and the way the stakes and challenges begin to complicate themselves and even overlap (without unnecessary explanation, I might add) make for a more surprising and diabolical experiment than the other similarly themed movies I mentioned.
But ultimately, the film should have just left the cops out of it. It's hard for me to complain about seeing Ron Perlman in a movie, but in this case, he's dead weight. Everything important that happens in the movie can be seen through Elliot's eyes; no other context is required.