Desperate people willing to do bad things for money is hardly a new idea, but there seems to be something in the air of 2014 bringing this notion to the forefront of the indie cinema world. Following E.L. Katz’ Cheap Thrills this year is director Daniel Stamm’s 13 Sins, a conspiracy driven thriller with vibrant pops of horror throughout that explores not only what one man will do for money, but what happens when we’re trapped by our own ambition.
At the center of the film is Elliot, a tenderhearted man with a girlfriend (Rutina Wesley), a baby on the way, and a developmentally challenged brother that requires care and attention. When Elliot finds himself suddenly without work, he’s unsure of how he’ll provide for his family until he receives a strange phone call from an unknown number offering him money in exchange for strange achievements. From simple, harmless requests such as killing a fly, the game escalates to something far more frightening and dangerous, challenging Elliot’s good nature and threatening the very things he holds most dear.
There’s a few plot holes and loose ends in 13 Sins that lead to a very unsatisfying ending, but it’s easy enough to see why the questions themselves were avoided. What is explored is fairly fascinating, but still feels fairly unrevolutionary. The idea that there are unseen forces controlling the day-to-day lives of humans is nothing new, but as in Cheap Thrills, there’s a particularly grotesque bent — the implication that anyone, anywhere can be bought, if the price is right. We like to think we’d be different, but both films highlight the ease with which we are often brought down. One small act soon leads to another, and it’s remarkable how quickly people can be convinced to cause harm and destruction for the right amount of money. Both films take the ideas out of the realm of imagination and drag them to their logical conclusion, to very different result. (Also, while 13 Sins is in some ways a more fully formed film, Cheap Thrills is definitely kind of cooler?)
Mark Webber has done excellent work as a supporting actor up until recently, while working on his own projects and directing his own films. He’s often been the guy you recognize but can’t quite place, but as Webber continues to take a variety of roles, it’s exciting to see him grow with each performance. From mild-mannered to desperate rage, Webber’s emotions run the gamut in 13 Sins and his continued growth is impressive.
Ron Perlman makes almost a cameo-level appearance in the film as a detective trying to track the trail of mayhem. He’s serviceable here, but hardly offers up anything exceptional. Rutina Wesley is unfortunately relegated to the vaguely naive, disapproving role of girlfriend, and there’s not much for her to do but react. In fact, there’s no progressive women’s roles in the film at all. Devon Graye as the younger brother is an important and talented addition to the film, however it would have been a simple change to make this character a woman.
It feels as if there’s often too big a gap between outrageous blockbusters and low-level indie projects. There should be more of a niche for films at this level, smaller, more manageable films that do a great deal with their moderate budgets, but they often end up feeling somehow unfulfilling. If 13 Sins fails anywhere, it’s in the look of the film. Based on the 2006 Thai film 13 Beloved, such dark subject matter would seem to require something grittier, but 13 Sins is shot relatively plainly, and all the trapping that go along with it are similarly simple.
While 13 Sins could have been better, it’s a bit hard to place a finger on why or how, exactly. Not quite horror enough, despite the blood flow, and still somehow lacking in the drama or thrill department. 13 Sins is a movie anchored by a likeable lead, yet the film lacks confidence in other important areas. An important reminder that an idea alone, no matter how strong and remarkable, does not a fantastic film make.
Amanda Mae Meyncke writes about movies and other matters, she lives in Los Angeles.