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13 Sins  (2014)
2 Stars
Directed by Daniel Stamm.
Cast: Mark Webber, Rutina Wesley, Devon Graye, Tom Bower, Ron Perlman, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Clyde Jones, Deneen Tyler; voice of George Coe.
2014 – 92 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, bloody images and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 13, 2014.
"13 Sins" has got a humdinger premise and a grippingly spun narrative on its side. What it doesn't have is a satisfying payoff. Written and directed by Daniel Stamm (2010's "The Last Exorcism") and co-written by David Birke, this slickly mounted "what-would-you-do?" thriller—a New Orleans-set American remake of the 2006 Thai film "13: Game of Death"—draws the viewer in from the squirmy, attention-grabbing prologue. As the main story proper gets under way, the film introduces us to a down-on-his-luck salesman named Elliot (Mark Webber) who is about to lose his job and quite possibly his home mere days before his wedding to pregnant girlfriend Shelby (Rutina Wesley). The mounting stack of pressures are becoming too much—he also has an autistic brother (Devon Graye) to care for and an elderly father (Tom Bower) residing in an assisted living facility—which is probably why it's an easy decision for him when he receives a mysterious phone call from an upbeat game show host (chillingly voiced by George Coe) asking him to participate in 13 challenges for the chance to win up to $6.2-million. They start out relatively innocuous—the first one is to kill a fly for $1,000, the second is to eat said fly for over twice that amount—but with each incremental step the challenges grow darker and more twisted. If he completes all 13, he will be a rich man. If he doesn't, his bank deposits will vanish without a trace.

The question of what a person would do and how far he or she would be willing to go for the promise of financial security is not exactly a novel idea—it spans as far back as François-René de Chateaubriand's 1802 tome "Genius of Christianity," was the basis for Richard Matheson's 1970 short story "Button, Button" (later adapted into 2009's "The Box"), and even 2013's "Would You Rather" and 2014's "Cheap Thrills" covered similar territory in the last sixteen months alone—but it is a universal, consistently fascinating query that never goes out of style. "13 Sins" is a macabre film, but there is a sense of playfulness to its tone that keeps it from getting too heavy or demanding. Mardi Gras imagery and the circus-themed ringtone signaling calls from the game show host bring foreboding locational atmosphere to the proceedings, while Mark Webber (2012's "For a Good Time, Call...") is compelling as "contestant" Elliot, faced with sacrificing his moral code and his relationships as he passes the point of no return.

As Detective Chilcoat (Ron Perlman) starts investigating the wave of crimes happening throughout the city and an obsessive guy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) comes into view with a scrapbook of proof that what Elliot is going through is not a solitary occurrence, one patiently waits for a third-act raise of the curtain. Instead of providing much insight, however, director Daniel Stamm takes the picture in a more listless, far-fetched direction culminating in a series of increasingly silly plot developments. The ending, which doesn't take the time to truly consider the sacrifices Elliot has made, finishes with a whimper that leaves the last 92 minutes feeling kind of pointless. "13 Sins" almost deserves a pass for the enthusiasm with which it has been made, but the film's path leads to a disconcerting dead end.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman