Just what, exactly, would you be willing to do for complete financial freedom? It’s an interesting question, especially in this day and age where any and everyone seem desperate to secure their “15 minutes of fame” by any means necessary. The formerly notorious but now (presumably) passe game show, Fear Factor, sought to answer this question with a variety of stunts and “dares,” although the rewards usually fell far short of the aforementioned “complete financial freedom” angle. In this case, contestants would eat reindeer testicles, sit in glass boxes filled with tarantulas and perform “hazardous” stunts (hazardous, of course, being a relative term when network television takes as many precautions as humanly possible to avoid on-air death), all for a cash prize that, if memory serves correctly, was nowhere near the amount required to make someone financially independent.
In the case of Fear Factor, people were willing to do some pretty icky things (eating balut, as far as I’m concerned, will always be a deal-breaker) but everything was undertaken with the assurance (again, born of network television, the “safe word” of the entertainment industry) that no harm could really befall the contestants or those around them: the very worst that could happen would be someone puking, which falls pretty low on the “soul-shattering” scale. What if the safety nets of polite society were removed, however? What if the stakes were raised and someone were actually offered complete financial security in exchange for completing a series of ever more heinous tasks? Where would we end up drawing the line? Would we draw a line? These are the questions that writer/director Daniel Stamm asks in 13 Sins (2014), a remake of the earlier Thai film 13: Game of Death (2006). When basic morality stands in the way of a truly life-changing amount of money, is the world really as black and white as we wish it were? Or are the obvious shades of gray that fill the margins more terrifying than any potential monster under the bed?
After a truly dynamic, disturbing opening that introduces us to the closing moves of a previous “game,” 13 Sins begins proper by introducing us to our hero, the put-upon sad-sack known as Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber). As far as problems go, Elliot has a fairly full plate: he’s just about to get married to his pregnant fiancée, Shelby (Rutina Wesley), while also taking care of his mentally disabled brother, Michael (Devon Graye) and his bitter, racist, hateful father (Tom Bower). To make everything better, Elliot has just been fired from his job as an insurance salesman (he isn’t able to “do what it takes,” which is about as obvious as the foreshadowing really gets), his brother is getting kicked out of his care facility and his father is getting kicked out of his retirement home. Holy insurmountable problems, Batman! To whit: Elliot now has no income, an expensive wedding to take care of and needs to move his vile father (Shelby happens to be black, which makes her a constant target for the father’s virulent racism) and loving but “challenging” brother into his small home. For most people, these might be the kind of issues that would completely crush and destroy someone’s spirit. Turns out, Elliot may just be one of those kind of folks, after all.
Our hero’s luck changes, however, when he gets a mysterious phone call while stopped at a deserted intersection in the middle of the night. The unknown, excessively jovial person on the other end of the line tells Elliot that he has the opportunity to be on a game show: when Elliot, rightfully, expresses his disbelief, the caller proceeds to reveal several aspects about Elliot’s personal life that no one should really know. He then tells Elliot to swat the pesky fly that’s currently bopping around his car: if he does, he’ll automatically earn $1000. After swatting the fly, Elliot receives a text message that alerts him to the successful completion of Task 1. A follow-up calls gives Elliot his next task: eat the dead fly and receive $3622, the exact amount that Shelby owes on her credit card. This would make an awfully nice wedding present, according to the voice, and a perfect way to begin Elliot and Shelby’s life as a married couple.
After getting home and checking his bank account, Elliot realizes that the caller isn’t joking: $1000 has recently been deposited to his account. After roughly a second of forethought, Elliot eats the fly, completing Task 2 and receiving his next payment. At this point, the mysterious caller fills him in on the rest of the details: Elliot must complete a total of thirteen excessively more difficult tasks, each task worth an increasingly large sum of money, all the way up to the 13th task, which will reward Elliot with a “life-changing amount of money.” Failure to complete any task will result in “losing it all,” including all money won up to that point, as will trying to interfere with the game in any way. Telling anyone about the game, whether his loving fiancée or law enforcement officials, will also result in a loss: according to the voice, the game is solely Elliot’s to win (or lose). If he wins, Elliot and Shelby will begin their new life on their own terms. If he loses, well…how much worse off could he get? Elliot completes his registration process by facing the bathroom window and intoning “I will dance with the golden toad”: with that, the game is afoot…and Elliot’s fate is sealed.
The kicker, of course, is that Elliot really has no idea how bad things will get until the shit hits the proverbial fan. While the initial tasks seem harmless, if decidedly odd (killing and eating a fly may be nasty but it doesn’t exactly turn someone into Ed Gein), the follow-up tasks find Elliot going down an increasingly grim rabbit hole of public disturbance and reprehensible behavior: making a child cry, burning up a church’s nativity scene (handcrafted by blind children, naturally), getting revenge on a childhood bully. As Elliot completes the increasingly more unpleasant tasks, he must take great pains to keep Shelby, Michael and his father from figuring out what’s going on. Things become even more complicated when a gruff, no-nonsense police detective (Ron Perlman) begins investigating Elliot’s various “crimes.” As the caller continually reminds Elliot, he’s now so far into the game that winning it is the only way out: otherwise, he’ll end up serving some pretty decent jail time for his various “crimes against humanity.”
Elliot is fundamentally a good guy, however, and really just wants to provide for his family under some pretty difficult circumstances. As a nice guy, he begins to balk at some of the tasks but an odd thing begins to happen: as Elliot completes more and more tasks, he begins to get a bit…well, acclimated, to the whole thing. He begins to swagger around and get back some of his old self-confidence. While Elliot may not be doing particularly nice things, he is, at the very least, taking direct steps to dig his way out of the financial hole he’s buried in. He’s doing what all of us would like to do: pulling himself up by his own bootstraps and initiative. Once the tasks take a horrifying turn, however, Elliot is left with a very basic but all-important question: what does it benefit a man to gain it all if he loses his very humanity, in the process? As his life spirals completely out of control and Elliot comes ever closer to that feared 13th Task, he will quickly learn that there are more than one way to play any game. And, sometimes, winning can be worse than losing.
While watching 13 Sins, I was constantly reminded of an old saying: “If this is the kind of thing you like, then you’re gonna love this.” In some ways, Stamm’s film is the very epitome of this ideal: certain people (myself included) will eat up the film’s concentrated nastiness with a spoon, whereas others will find the whole thing to be such a despicable little bit of coal-black misanthropy that they probably won’t make it past the first 10 minutes. To be fair, both viewpoints are completely valid: 13 Sins is absolutely not for everyone and anyone with a decidedly “sensitive” palette should approach this with extreme caution. While the film does go to some pretty intense places, gore-wise, it goes to some even more intense places, concept-wise, which will probably be the dividing line for most folks.
In many ways, the film acts as a sort of moral barometer, asking the audience just how far “too far” really is. I can think of very few people who would have significant moral quandaries over eating, much less killing, a fly. I even know plenty of people who might not balk at making an anonymous child cry (if you know who you are, for gods’ sake, keep your damn hand down!). Suffice to say, however, that I’m eternally grateful for not knowing anyone who could surf through all 13 tasks without feeling at least some sort of pang to the conscience area, especially once we get to the dreaded 13th task. This, then, is the film’s greatest coup and its biggest virtue: it sets up a slippery-slope of dubious actions that traps the viewer half-way down, like a Venus Fly Trap. As we find more and more ways to justify what goes on (I could do that, if I really tried…I could do that if I didn’t think about it…I could do that if I really had to…I could do that if I had absolutely no other choice), it becomes painfully clear that morality and the notion of “good vs evil” are much less concretely defined than many of us might have previously hoped. Even when one adds in the supposed assurances of organized religion, there’s still the unspoken notion that we would violate any and every taboo if only to safeguard our loved ones: hard-and-fast rules are all well and good until it’s your husband/wife/baby/parents/siblings/best friends on the chopping block. At that point, many of us might find ourselves rethinking long-held notions of right and wrong, arriving at a definition that’s a bit more conditional and less rigidly enforced.
But this is all, of course, almost completely academic: a film can worry us with moral quandaries until the cows come home (Are the cows properly treated? Have they been fed growth hormones and kept in tiny pens? Are we raising them simply to be slaughtered or do realize that all living creatures have inherent value as individuals? What if the cows can’t find their way home?) but still have as much impact as one of those old videos from high school health classes. How does 13 Sins hold up as an actual film? Does it work as both a thriller/chiller and a thought-provoking dissertation on our modern malaise? For the most part, despite a few rather sizable plot holes, the answer is a resounding “absolutely.”
While I’ve never seen Stamm’s previous films (I’ve never cared enough for demonic possession films to have really paid The Last Exorcism (2010) much attention and his debut, A Necessary Death (2008) sounds intriguing but was, likewise, off my radar), 13 Sins is a thoroughly well-made, effective little film. Mark Webber channels the working-class relateability of someone like Sam Rockwell in his portrayal of Elliot, which makes it much easier to empathize with his character’s oftentimes terrible decision-making. Devon Graye is excellent as the developmentally-disabled Michael, managing to make the character seem less stereotypical than might previously be possible for a character of this type in a genre film. Perlman, of course, is spectacular but when is the guy ever bad? Even if he were phoning in the performance (which he doesn’t), Perlman would be an utterly magnetic, charismatic presence: there’s one throwaway bit where he sticks his tongue out at a little girl that manages to be hit so many character “buttons” at one time that it’s kind of ridiculous…in a completely badass way, of course. My big complaint with Perlman’s performance in 13 Sins is the same from any film that he doesn’t star in: there’s way too little of him here, although what’s here is suitably excellent. The rest of the cast, from Tom Bower’s obnoxious father to Rutina Wesley’s eternally faithful, if utterly confused, Shelby provide great support for Webber but, ultimately, this is his film and his journey to make.
From a production standpoint, 13 Sins is top-notch: while the film often has a glossy, heavily produced look, the subject matter is pure exploitation, taking a certain perverse glee in presenting a raft of unpleasant situations in as visually appealing a way as possible. When they saw an arm off in the film, it looks great, even if the scene is so protracted as to practically demand nausea: it’s the film’s great blessing (curse?) that everything is delivered in as hyper-realistic a way as possible, even as the scenarios become increasingly fanciful and “unrealistic.”
Since 13 Sins is, technically, a mystery (at least in the same vein as Fincher’s The Game (1997)), the script becomes all-important and Stamm (working with co-writer David Birke) has crafted a particularly smart, strong foundation. While I found the ultimate resolution to be a little problematic (without going into much detail, it bothered me that Elliot didn’t think through the ultimate ramifications of his final bit of revenge: could he have really been that short-sighted?), the plot is exceedingly tight. The tendency to group certain tasks together felt a little arbitrary and more than a little lazy, on occasion (Wait…we really have to think up 13 different tasks? What if we just came up with…I dunno…11 or so and just fudged the rest?) and there were a few elements that seemed unnecessarily vague (I still have no idea what the 5th Task entailed, although I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t, either) but these are, ultimately, pretty small quibbles. When 13 Sins works, it works amazingly well, provided the same sort of gut-punch, visceral reaction that I had to the first Saw (2004). When it doesn’t work, it’s a quick-paced, highly entertaining and suitably sleazy thriller: in my book, that’s kind of a win-win situation.
Ultimately, 13 Sins, like American Mary (2012), is one of those films that is easy for me to like but difficult for me to recommend. While the subject matter is certainly less immediately reprehensible than the body modification/torture scenarios of American Mary, I can’t help but feel that many viewers will feel completely shut out of the pitch-black heart that beats at the center of 13 Sins. In many ways, Stamm’s film is holding a cracked fun house mirror up to society and asking us if we like what we see: in a day and age where, literally, “anything goes,” Stamm asks us to reconsider that notion just a little further. After all, you might be willing to do just about anything to provide yourself with a viable future but how far are you actually willing to go to test that hypothesis? Killing that fly is a small step, sure, but it’s still the first step: at this point, what step are we all on and how far will we go before we say “enough is enough?”