“13 SINS” (Movie Review)
Never mind the fact that it’s a remake; 13 SINS, through a coincidence of release timing, is also in the unfortunate position of begging comparison to E.L. Katz’s masterful recent CHEAP THRILLS, both being films exploring the deep, dangerous lengths their characters will go for promised fortunes.
Where CHEAP THRILLS kept a tight focus on four characters in a confined setting, 13 SINS (based on a Thai movie known as 13: GAME OF DEATH and 13 BELOVED) involves a conspiracy with global implications. That’s made clear in the opening scene, set in Australia, where a well-dressed gentleman takes the podium at an august gathering and proceeds to quote from the oeuvre of John “Dr. Dirty” Valby before the scene comes to a bloody end. We’re then introduced to Elliot (Mark Webber) just before he’s fired from his job as a New Orleans insurance salesman for not being ruthless enough with potential clients. Right from the start, the trajectory is clear: Elliot will be undergoing the ultimate stress test of how far into the dark side he’ll travel.
To motivate him, the script by David Birke and director Daniel Stamm really stacks the deck against poor Elliot: He’s being let go on the cusp of an expensive wedding to Shelby (Rutina Wesley), who’s got their bun cooking in her oven, and he’s got heavy student-loan debts to pay off, and he’s got a mentally impaired brother, Michael (Devon Graye), to support, and his embittered, nasty father (Tom Bower) is about to be shown the door of his nursing home, requiring a move back in with Elliot, and the old man is a virulent racist and Shelby is African-American, which means things are about to get pretty tense around Elliot’s place. What’s poor Elliot to do?
The answer comes in the form of a cell-phone call from a mysterious man (voiced by George Coe, sounding very much like Angus Scrimm), who tells Elliot that if he kills a fly that’s buzzing around his car, $1,000 will be deposited into his bank account. He does and it is, and the voice calls back and instructs him to eat the fly for another $3,000. After winning that payoff, Elliot learns that if he accomplishes a total of 13 increasingly gnarly tasks—without alerting anyone about what he’s up to—he’ll win millions. Stamm and Birke follow the original film’s template up to the challenge of making a child cry, then fortunately skip over the dare to eat some…let’s just say pre-digested food, and have fun revealing morbid twists to what at first sound like easy jobs. Webber finds just the right pitch for his performance, as Elliot slowly discovers his capacity for daring and bad behavior—and starts to revel in it.
Stamm directs the proceedings vigorously, maintaining a healthy streak of black humor amidst the increasingly grisly goings-on. As opposed to the found-footage roughness of his previous THE LAST EXORCISM, his visuals here, in concert with cinematographer Zoltan Honti, are rich in hard-edged atmosphere. As the events become more and more outrageous, however, the lumps in the storytelling start to show. One challenge involves procuring an ostrich (which, when we see it, is actually an emu), but the movie never explains how Elliot finds it so quickly, and the victim of one of the more violent dares seems remarkably willing to suffer for Elliot’s cause. Perhaps he’s going through a game of his own? The film never tells us, but (SPOILER ALERT) it wouldn’t be surprising, since by the end, it seems like there are few characters who aren’t in on the plot somehow, and the overcomplication diffuses the tension.
That includes an unnecessary subplot (not present in the Thai version) in which the cop on Elliot’s case, played by the dependable Ron Perlman with a nice seen-it-all deadpan, seeks out a conspiracy theorist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who might have a handle on what’s happening. Pulpy stuff like this gets in the way of the story’s most basic appeal: Getting the audience to question how far they’d go for money, and whether they’d go as far as Elliot does. By keeping things tight and small-scale, CHEAP THRILLS never loses that what-would-I-do? hold on the viewer; 13 SINS has the same appeal for its first half, but lets it slip away in the second as it ventures into only-in-the-movies territory.