Real human beings take a certain kind of sadistic pleasure in watching fictional human beings suffer. As long as it’s from a safe distance, and it’s not affecting you or yours on any level, watching man turn into beast right before your very eyes could feel almost empowering. Just think about the most popular video games for a second, if all the violent movies aren’t convincing enough. This type of barbarity gets upped a notch when you throw in the theme of voyeurism; not only are we watching how low some people will go, but now we’re watching them being watched, controlled, and manipulated into doing some really nasty stuff. We’ve seen it on taut psychological display in David Fincher‘s “The Game,” James Wan‘s “Saw” begat an entire franchise on it, and more recently E.L. Katz‘s “Cheap Thrills” had all sorts of delirious fun with it during the festival circuit. With Daniel Stamm‘s “13 Sins” however, the idea is skinned to the bone and thrown to the dogs. Trouble is, not even the dogs might enjoy this one.
Elliot (Mark Webber) is a 32-year-old salesman who’s on the cusp of sorting his whole life out. He’s made his biggest number of sales yet, he’s about to marry his expecting girlfriend Shelby (Rutina Wesley), and he doesn’t have to force his brother Michael (Devon Graye), who suffers from Down Syndrome, into a public hospital, thanks to his job’s insurance policy. Things are looking up, until he goes to work to find out that he’s getting fired. It appears that the best Elliot could do is still not good enough for his firm, and not only does he get fired but he gets humiliated for not standing up to his boss, being too much of a pushover, and not willing to get his hands dirty. Turns out, the firm he’s working for expects Elliot to sell, sell, sell even when it feels like he’s taking advantage of people. Elliot’s whole life practically flashes before his eyes as he tries to tell Michael that he’ll have to go back to Bellevue, and gets constructive advice from his racist jerk of a father (Tom Bower). Then, one night and in the middle of nowhere, as it were, Elliot is waiting on a red light and gets a call with a mysterious (and horrendously cheesy) ringtone. The elderly gentleman on the other end of the line tells Eliot that he’s been chosen to participate in a game, one that if he successfully completes will make all of his financial troubles go away forever. All he has to do is finish 13 challenges, starting with swatting the fly in his car.
All of the above happens in a span of about 15 minutes of screen time, which is one of the major problems plaguing “13 Sins” throughout. It thrusts the audience into the heart of the matter without letting any of Elliot’s troubles sink in deep enough to feel genuine. Of course, Elliot agrees to the game because of how easy the first two challenges are. He kills a fly, eats it, and becomes five thousand dollars richer. With the voice telling him that the finalist stands to win close to 6 million dollars, how could he not accept? The fact that no alarm bells ring in Elliot’s head that very instant doesn’t serve the character, or the story, any good. But, desperate times call for desperate measures and hang up on logic. The truth hits before Elliot can get to his sixth challenge; attempting to relate to anything or anyone in “13 Sins” is futile. Elliot accepts the challenge for one reason and one reason only; he’s a fictional character in a movie that doesn’t take any lengths to try and make the viewer forget they’re watching a movie. Once the challenges become more and more sinful, things progress in predictable fashion, but at least at a good pace.
“13 Sins” is the kind of movie you have playing in the background as you wash the dishes or clean the house. Perhaps that’s why Ron Perlman, the most recognizable player in this game, looks half asleep and fully bored as Detective Chillcoat, who wanders into the story halfway to investigate the bizarre incidents that have been occurring around town. Webber, who you may remember as one of the band members in “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” is the only one who walks away with his head held high. He animates a character written with a personality of a blow-up doll, and uses all the means available to make you sympathize with Elliot’s predicament. But the greatest crutch the movie has for leaning on is the delectable concept itself. The clock on “13 Sins” runs out pretty quickly thanks to the inescapable kind of anxiousness built into watching the challenges rise. Everything we see tells us that Eliot is a good man just trying to do right by his family, and it’s innately entertaining to watch good men do bad things for good reasons. Daniel Stamm’s hurried direction, together with the third-rate screenplay written by Stamm and David Birke, gets easily pushed to the sidelines by this built-in fascination of watching the “spectacle of transformation,” as one token character puts it.
What you’ll find here is not much you’ll be able to take away, but just looking at it could be a good way to kill some time in between walking the dog and doing the groceries. The kind of meat found in movies who take this idea to climb an extra step and peer into the psychological, the physical, the transformative and the truly absurd, has long been chewed off with “13 Sins.” Depending on how intrigued you are by the idea of watching movies about violent mind games, this one could be an entertaining ride. Ultimately though, this is one of those mind games that lean too heavily on the mindless to be thoroughly enjoyable, turning sadistic pleasure into harmless boredom. [C-]