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SXSW 2014 Review: ’13 Sins’ Commits the Somewhat Lesser Infraction of Redundancy

By  · Published on March 8th, 2014

Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber) is having a bad day. His hope for a promotion at work has instead resulted in being fired, and that doesn’t bode well for a man with a pregnant wife and a learning-impaired brother at home. A single phone call changes all of that by offering a chance at financial freedom. The catch? Complete a series of thirteen challenges without fail and without telling anyone else what’s happening. What could possibly go wrong?

It starts with a deceptively innocuous challenge. The game show-friendly voice on the phone tells him to kill the fly currently buzzing around his head for $1000. Concerns over exactly how the man on the phone knows there’s a fly are brushed aside, and soon Elliot’s a grand richer. Then swallow the fly. Then make a little girl cry. Then do something involving a homeless man and an ostrich. It’s not too long before he’s moved beyond moral grey areas and started committing felonies, and the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole the harder it becomes to climb back out again.

13 Sins is a mix of dark comedy and vicious thrills, but while there are moments that surprise and sing far too much of it feels overly familiar. It’s a lesser sin to be sure, but it would surprise no one if there was a special place in hell for makers of unnecessary remakes.

Director Daniel Stamm’s (A Necessary Death) latest is a remake of the 2006 Thai film, 13: Game of Death, but the years since have seen numerous other films sharing a very similar setup and plot. The two most recent examples, Would You Rather and Cheap Thrills, both narrow the focus considerably while tackling the same central theme of personal greed, how much is enough, and the limits of how far we’d go to earn a few bucks. Stamm and co-writer David Birke keep the original’s larger scope (and borrow a page from Would You Rather by adding in a family member in need), but while that opens up more possibilities it also raises more issues.

In order to connect the broader dots and keep Elliot out of custody some script silliness is required. Tension is deflated, and we’re left with a movie where honest consequences get lost amid twists, revelations, and willful ignorance. People die, but it’s difficult to care all that much as the tone keeps things a bit too unreal and loose up to and including the ending.

While the script fails to convince on the dramatic front, the film does hit the comedic mark on several occasions. The laughs that do land are due as much to the actors involved as they are to the situations they find themselves in. Webber does good work as the incredulous but desperate man quickly descending deeper into his new found personal hell, and displays a fine balance between Elliot’s confusion, dedication to securing the cash, and pure sense of growing panic. Standouts in the supporting cast meanwhile include Ron Perlman who plays the detective tasked with stopping the madman wreaking havoc all over town, and Tom Bower as Elliot’s racist ass of a father. The two get most of the film’s best dialogue and deliver with the skill of experienced character actors.

13 Sins is a competent film, remake or not, but while it offer some thrills and thought-provoking questions early on it loses its dramatic weight well before the end credits roll. Still, the escalation is engaging and the smiles they encourage are frequent enough. See Would You Rather for a better movie about people pushed to their limits for greenbacks. See 13 Sins for Perlman’s “Hamlet” joke.

The Upside: Some fun; Ron Perlman

The Downside: We’ve seen this before; resolution is weak and feels too easy

On the Side: David Birke’s previous writing credits include Dahmer, Gacy, and Freeway Killer.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.