"It's a challenging genre to take on - one in which it's difficult to deliver surprises or present complex characters - but Stamm has acquitted himself well."

The notion of an ordinary, down-on-his-luck man persuaded to participate in a sinister game for the entertainment of the amoral rich is an old one in cinema, usually the stuff of cheesy exploitation fare with muscular heroes who resolve the situation by being unexpectedly bulletproof. 13 Sins is something a little more complicated, as one might expect from Daniel Stamm, who brought us The Last Exorcism. It's a challenging genre to take on - one in which it's difficult to deliver surprises or present complex characters - but Stamm has acquitted himself well, and whilst this isn't quite up to the standard of his previous work it's certainly an interesting curiosity.

13 Sins is actually a remake of a Thai film, 13 Beloved, but it has a distinctive character of its own. Much of this is down to Mark Webber, who delivers a sensitive, nuanced performance in the central role. His Elliot is a shy young man who, like so many, is only just managing to get by in post-recession New Orleans. When he loses his sales job for not being aggressive enough, he faces financial ruin. His autistic brother (a superb Devon Graye, making his character much more than just an object of pity) begs him to keep finding the money for home care so he doesn't have to return to a miserable life in an institution. Elliot doesn't know how he can afford to keep his elderly, racist father in a home and away from his own home, which he shares with his black girlfriend. She's pregnant, they're scheduled to marry the following week, and Elliot is desperate. So when a stranger with a game show host voice phones up and offers him money, he stays on the line.

Copy picture

The first challenge seems simple. Kill a fly and win a thousand dollars. Elliot watches in disbelief as the money appears in his bank account, visible on his phone. He can take further challenges, he's told, for increasingly large prizes, but if he fails one, he'll lose everything he has won so far. It's a classic psychological trap, but Elliot is too frantic to see it. He doesn't even ask what the challenges will involve, and despite his effort to find creative solutions to them, he is very quickly out of his comfort zone.

At times perhaps a little too blunt with its moral dilemmas, the film is very effective when it comes to breaking rhythm and achieving a pace that feels natural rather than episodic. There's support from Ron Perlman as the police chief on Elliot's tail, and New Orleans itself is a strong presence in the film, contributing a history of moody crime and horror cinema. The horror here is more psychological than visceral, despite a couple of bloody scenes towards the end. The increasing sense of claustrophobia generated by Elliot's predicament mens that viewers, too, are likely to lose sight of the fact that he could choose to stop at any time.

Shot through with moments of warmth and humour that ground the otherwise rather far fetched, conspiracy theory style plot, 13 Sins keeps the pressure on without losing its humanity. It can't quite escape from the artificiality of its premise but it's better than anyone had a right to expect.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2014
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A down-on-his-luck man is offered the chance to win a fortune by completing 13 challenges.

Director: Daniel Stamm

Writer: David Birke, Daniel Stamm

Starring: Mark Webber, Devon Graye, Rutina Wesley, Tom Bower, Ron Perlman

Year: 2014

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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