What would any of us do for the right amount of money? Would we steal? Set fire to a church? Kill someone? That's the basic question that Daniel Stamm's 13 Sins, a remake of Thai film 13 Beloved. It's an interesting concept, and the protagonist Elliot, played by Mark Webber, is suitably sympathetic, though there are a few issues with the film.
Elliot is down on his luck. He's lost his job, he's deep in debt and about to get married to his pregnant girlfriend Shelby (Rutina Wesley), his mentally challenged brother Michael (Devon Graye) is in danger of being sent back to an institution, and his racist and bitter father (Tom Bower) is getting evicted from his retirement home and will have to move in with him. (The racist part is important, because Shelby is black, and a victim of petty cruelty from dad.) Elliot is at the end of his tether. So he feels like he's had a stroke of luck when he gets a phone call from an anonymous group that offers him a chance to participate in some kind of reality show. He has thirteen tasks to complete, and if he completes them all he'll be rich.
The tasks start out simply enough. The first one is just to kill a fly. But they get steadily more disturbing and wicked. Elliot is just desperate enough that he's willing to go along, until it's too late to back out. As the tasks get more destructive and illegal, the police become interested, in the form of relentless Detective Chilcoat (Ron Perlman). It doesn't take too long for them to ID the inexperienced criminal Elliot, but the mysterious voice on the phone tells him that if he completes his tasks, all charges and consequences will be taken care of. He soon discovers that there's another person playing the game too, and only one of them can win. The climax approaches Shakespearean levels, as one of the characters wryly notes.
13 Sins has something of the feel of a quest movie, but seen through a twisted lens. Elliot is desperate to improve his lot, but he becomes more and more uneasy with the path he's chosen. He's struggling as much against himself as against the game or the shadowy group behind it. Webber does a good job showing the subtle shifts in Elliot's outlook as the film progresses. In fact, all the performances are great, from Perlman's quiet seriousness, to Wesley's giggling exuberance, and Graye's spot on performance that is affecting but doesn't descend into parody. There's also a nice cameo by Pruitt Taylor Vince as a conspiracy nut who's obsessed with the game.
There are problems, though. The bathos are layered on quite a bit too thick at the beginning, in order to raise the stakes for Elliot's quest through the thirteen tasks. It makes him out to be a pathetic, loser sad sack, and presents the question of why a smart, put together beauty like Shelby would give him the time of day. Once the introductory segments are finished, though, the film works much better, and it is gratifying to see Elliot's transformation from an aimless schlub to a confident man steering his own destiny. There are also a few effects issues. Not really effects, actually, but execution. There is a wire across the road decapitation scene, and the motorcycles involved are not going nearly fast enough for the effect observed, for example. Stamm says in the commentary that this was because of safety and insurance reasons, but it does take the viewer out of the moment.
13 Sins is a mostly competent thriller with an interesting premise and very good performances. There are a few hiccups along the way, but it's an enjoyable ride, though something of a downer at times. Recommended.
Making of 13 Sins
Anatomy of a Meltdown
Feature Commentary with Co-writer / Director Daniel Stamm, Mark Webber, Ron Perlman and Devon Graye