Sometimes it’s a shame that we don’t live in a vacuum. 13 Sins has been released roughly a month after Cheap Thrills, and that’s not enough time to make them feel like completely separate entities. Their plots are close, they contain similar themes, and the former is better, which means that the latter can only really disappoint. 13 Sins isn’t a bad film, but if you’ve just seen Cheap Thrills you should probably give it a few months before you choose to watch it, if that’s what you ultimately choose.
I’ll mention now — because I know somebody will point it out in an attempt to show me up — that 13 Sins is actually a remake of a Thai film released in 2006 titled 13 Beloved. No, I haven’t seen it. No, I didn’t know it existed until I looked up 13 Sins. I mention it here because (1) it’s good information to have and (2) to make sure you don’t think I’m saying that 13 Sins is ripping off Cheap Thrills. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I just think they’re too similar and released too closely together to both be worth seeing right at release. You’ll get a sense of déjà vu.
The plot revolves around Elliot (Mark Webber), a salesman who refuses to upsell and is an all-around nice guy. Not a “nice guy,” but a genuinely good-hearted man who just can’t say “no.” He’s about to be married and have a child, he cares for his mentally impaired brother (Devon Graye), and, as the film opens, also takes in his abusive and racist father (Tom Bower). Add on student loans and credit card bills, and he’s got a lot on his plate. And then he gets fired, primarily due to that whole “refuses to upsell” thing I mentioned earlier.
While driving alone one night, sitting at a red light even though the streets are completely clear of traffic, Elliot receives a call. The person on the other end of the line seems to know everything about him. “Swat the fly in the car for $1,000,” he’s told. So he does. The Game begins. Elliot is now going to go through 13 increasingly awful challenges in order to acquire more and more money. If he drops out, or tells anyone about The Game, he loses all of it, and will also probably wind up in jail because many of these challenges are very much against the law.
13 Sins primarily follows Elliot, but it also has a parallel story involving a detective played by Ron Perlman, who is trying to get to the bottom of the recent string of crimes — all caused by Elliot. For the most part, this allows the film to drop hints of back story and exposition for the audience while keeping Elliot in the dark.
The idea here is that the 1% of the 1% controls everything in the world, essentially becoming gods, and they’re bored. So, they’ve cooked up this game, which turns good people into monsters all for money. “How far would you go?” becomes the central idea at play. Will Elliot do these heinous tasks in order to procure a life-changing fortune? Given that this isn’t a high-budget Hollywood film, at least there’s some semblance of doubt to this question. You can never say for sure just what Elliot will do in order to win The Game.
One problem that 13 Sins has is that it becomes too silly and too ridiculous to really make its “everyone can become a monster with the right provocation” philosophy make an impact. Some of its tasks are that difficult to take seriously. The film isn’t entirely successful at thrilling us to begin with, but once the stakes get raised it becomes even tougher. This isn’t a comedy — although some people might find a few scenes darkly funny — but it becomes laughable by the time it ends.
I was worried that it would introduce a bunch of elements and then never use them for anything other than set-up. Elliot’s entire family situation seems initially to be nothing more than a plot to make us see how unfortunate his situation is. It looks this way for a lot of the film, but eventually it winds up becoming more. The way that his family members get tied into the main plot is clever, and calls back to earlier moments that previously felt like nothing of importance, but were actually foreshadowing later events.
Mark Webber is not a well-known actor. You may recognize him, but it’s more likely you will not. He is quietly good in this film. He has to play both likeable but also capable of terrible deeds. And you can believe him in both roles. You root for him because of the former, but also fear him thanks to the latter. Mix in good but brief supporting performances from Rutina Wesley, Ron Perlman, Devon Graye, Tom Bower, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and you’ve got a solid cast of actors.
13 Sins feels derivative, especially with Cheap Thrills being released in such close proximity to it, but if you can put similar films out of your mind, you’re likely to have a decent time with it. Its ideas of what extremes people will go to for money are interesting. It does get too silly to take seriously at times, and that keeps it from really driving its message home, but that’s only a minor problem. It’s not particularly thrilling, but it is engaging and it’s more fun than you might expect. If the premise intrigues you, it’s worth watching.