Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Guest Review: 13 Sins (2014)

By Jonas Schwartz

A wicked black comedy, 13 Sins asks audiences to identify with a desperate man walking further down the plank, whittling away at his morals, playing a game that - even if he wins - will cost everything that makes him human.  Based on a Thai horror film 13: Game of Death (2006), 13 Sins has an Asian horror sense of violent escalation, but with an All-American motif of corporate paranoia.

Elliot (Mark Webber), a down on his luck salesman, takes a mysterious call from someone sounding like Mr Moviefone. This caller offers him $1000 if the young man will swat a fly.  

Though the first act is a simple one, the man on the phone continues to escalate the crimes he demands of Elliot, and the challenges become more deranged.  The coffer has also risen, yet like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Elliot must continue the tasks or lose all the money he’s built up.

The caller selects Elliot for a reason: he was at his lowest. He has just been humiliated and fired by his pompous boss (perfectly played as a smarmy elitist by Richard Burgi). Working in insurance, Elliot had been finding reasonable, affordable plans for his elderly clients, while the company demands a more killer instinct, something they mock him for lacking.  

Meanwhile, Elliot financially supports for his institutionalized brother (Devon Graye) and his pregnant fiancée (True Blood’s Rutina Wesley), and suddenly money has become a rope tied around Elliot’s neck.

The contests in the film are reminiscent of drug addiction. The first challenge - like the sample of coke or crack offered by a surreptitious dealer - takes no effort.  The second takes a bit stronger stomach.  

After three or four tasks, the financially-strapped Elliot has too much money at stake to give up.  Before Elliot can catch his breath, the killer has him committing felonies, setting him up for crimes, and making sure that Elliot has much more at stake than merely money. The drug parallel tightens when Elliot gets emotionally high off his crimes. 

Elliot’s misdeeds get noticed by the police in general and one detective in particular, played by genre favorite Ron Perlman. And though the police seem to believe Elliot is on a random spree, the detective digs deeper and discovers Elliot may not be the only one on this path. Many other former innocent victims may have been playing this “game” for centuries.

 Director Daniel Stamm was responsible for one of the more engrossing found footage flicks The Last Exorcism (2010). Bothfilms display the storyteller’s unpredictability, his macabre sense of humor, and a talent for getting compelling and strangely genuine performances within outlandish situations.  

13 Sins also contains some heart-thumping sequences. Early in the film, Elliot demonstrates his resourcefulness at a coffee shop to complete a trial, even if it means infuriating several cops, all while carrying a certain illegal substance that could land him in the gas chamber.  

Near the film’s climax, Stamm puts in play Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense-versus-surprise with a hide-your-eyes sequence involving a gang of bikers.  

Stamm piles on the gore with decapitations, scalpings, stabbings, and self-throat slittings but always does so with a comic-book excess that perversely tickles the funny-bone instead of the bile ducts, just as Quentin Tarantino does so often and so well.

Stamm draws from mythology similar to X-Files with epic conspiracies, where the players only see the tip of the iceberg and at the end, the cogs in the big machines are barely revealed. It’s a horrible world out there and nothing has been improved to prevent evil in the future. Like Warren Beatty in Parallax View (1974), Elliot gets a sense of control that turns out to be a mirage. He never had a choice; he’s a victim of fate from the start.

The cast members ably sell the absurdity and keep the audience rooting for them even when they cross over to their dark impulses.  Webber brings hapless humor to the role, a clumsy approach to Elliot’s trials even when they become more repugnant. Coincidentally, in the film Elliot intersects twice with the homeless community-- even taking advantage of them -- and yet Webber himself is an advocate of homeless rights, a fact which adds a subliminal self-torture in his performance during those scenes.

Webber’s natural charm also partially solves a hole in the script. Elliot has been described often as a meek loser, one tortured by bullies in high school and scorned by his company. The script adds a fiancée and soon-arriving child to add motivation for Elliot to join the game.

But Elliot should be a loner based on how the script has structured his character. As played by the sassy Wesley, Shelby is a vibrant, sexy, and compassionate woman, one who even forgives Elliot’s demolition of their rehearsal wedding dinner before her eyes. This woman LOVES Elliot.  She’s self-sacrificing, even caring for Elliot’s cold-hearted, racist father (Tom Bower).  There’s a dissonance between the Elliot the script keeps reminding us existed before the game and the solid relationship he already has with Shelby.

The script also doesn’t strengthen enough the symptoms of mentally-challenged Michael, Elliot’s brother. It is essential the audience comprehend how Michael’s mind works, how much he can compute, and how he reacts emotionally to people.  Because the script focuses mostly on Elliot’s relationship to Michael and doesn’t clarify Michael himself, several vital plot points remain fuzzy.

13 Sins paints a picture of a dog-eat-dog world where people are mere currency, set-up by dark forces as pawns, not unlike the many nameless victims in the dystopia of Death Race 2000 [1975].  Who in the real corporate world of today hasn’t felt like the expendable building blocks for the greedy as they climb to success and wealth?

However, 13 Sins doesn’t leave audiences in despair. There can be redemption and hope for those who turn away, for those who give the finger to the establishment no matter how omnipotent that force may be.

For those who enjoy 13 Sins, also consider checking out the moody, claustrophobic Would You Rather starring Jeffrey Combs as a diabolical host and Brittany Snow as another desperate sibling responsible for a brother-in-need.  There, a dinner party turns grotesque as destitute guests are awarded money for torturing each other.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonasat the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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