Netflix Pick: 13 Sins (2014)

Now this is my kind of movie… at least until it all falls apart. The more out there a concept, the harder it is to wrap it all up, so 13 Sins gets a pass. It’s all about the journey, not the lackluster destination. 

13 Sins is what Phone Booth could have been had it been made by a better director. Phone Booth was more of a thriller; its visual style and mood was the epitome of what I disliked about the 2000s, my least favorite era of film. 13 Sins has a lot more horror elements (blood, desecration of bodies, and Pruit Taylor Vince, the wonderfully odd-looking character actor from Jacob’s Ladder). It’s also more proof that horror is probably coming out of the depressing rut it’s been in with ad nauseam Saw sequels and found footage.

Elliot (Mark Webber) is a thirty-two year old loser who doesn’t even have the guts to tell his boss to go to hell when fired for bogus reasons. He’s got a mentally handicapped brother, a pregnant fiance, and a rancorous father who was driving the car that killed Elliot’s mother. You’ll probably roll your eyes at these obvious setups, believing you know exactly how the movie will employ them. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be wrong. Early on this film is a master at misdirection. (Later on, you’ll probably figure out the bigger reveals, but that’s okay.)

13 Sins doesn’t pussyfoot around even though the main character does. Soon after losing his job, Elliot gets a phone call from a stranger. Kill the fly in his car, the stranger says, and Elliot will be a grand richer. Elliot humors the tinny voice and checks his bank account. Sure enough, a thousand bucks have been deposited. The second challenge is to swallow the fly, which is worth more money. I won’t tell you what the other challenges are, but they only become more and more bizarre. By challenge #4, the cops are already on Elliot’s trail. 

This is not a slow movie.

By then, Elliot is beginning to have some fun. Whereas he used to be a quiet, timid man, he’s learning to enjoy making waves. After smooth-talking his way out of a run-in with the cops, we see him smile. And we smile, too. We’ll be damned if we don’t feel like we’re with him every step of the way, rooting for him even when the challenges get progressively weirder, including a challenge that seems ripped right out of Weekend at Bernie’s.

This isn’t to say the execution is flawless. The film seems to want to say something about human nature and greed, but the message bounces all over the place; perhaps it wants to say too much for its hour and a half running time. The tone seems to fluctuate throughout, peaking when it’s humorously dark and bottoming out when its main character actually shows some humanity. The ending artificially wraps up the escalating complications with a neat little bow. It’s like a fun roller coaster ride that ends unexpectedly and anticlimactically. Oh well, it’s still better than any Saw film ever.

I hope 13 Sins is part of a renaissance in horror. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more films like this and It Follows to wash the out the joyless aftertaste of the 2000s and that era’s over-produced Resident Evils and Underworlds. 

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