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The idea behind 13 Sins is a cool iteration of one of my favorite movie tropes: the impossible ethical quandary. Elliot (Mark Webber) is your average Joe Niceguy. Strapped for cash, he has a pregnant fianceé (Rutina Wesley), a disabled brother (Devon Graye), and a horrible elderly dad (Tom Bower) all depending on him. While driving around and fretting, he gets a mysterious phone call offering him a thousand dollars to kill a fly buzzing around the inside of his car. He does it with no hesitation, and the money is immediately wired into his bank account. Then the caller offers him $3,266, the exact balance on his fianceé’s credit card, to eat the fly. The caller explains the rules of what becomes known as simply the Game: Elliot will be given thirteen tasks of increasing difficulty to complete. Each task is worth more money, and the last will be worth a fortune. The hitch is that he has to complete all thirteen tasks or he loses everything he’s won so far. He’s also forbidden from telling anyone else about the Game or trying to interfere with it.
What I like about this twist is that it explains immediately why Elliot is so committed to seeing the Game through and completing all thirteen tasks. If he had the option to walk away at any time and take his winnings with him, it would be easy for us as viewers to think “I’d never do that, I don’t care how much money they offered me.” He’s clearly not a guy who’s driven by avarice. But even the second task, eating the fly, is unpleasant enough that you understand why he’s committed after enduring it. So he has no choice but to keep going, even as the tasks go from uncomfortable to horrific.
Not surprisingly, Elliot is transformed by his discovery of how far he’s willing to go for money. He goes from a sensitive patsy who’s bullied by his father and his former boss (basically everyone in this movie who has a penis) to an aggressive macho man who kisses his girlfriend in public (gasp!) and speeds through red lights. This emotional transformation feels like it belongs in a different kind of movie, like a comedy where a withdrawn young man throws off the shackles of conventional society and learns to dance in the rain or something.
Elliot isn’t just parking in No Parking zones or stealing policemen’s hats. He destroys the ballroom that’s been set up for his wedding rehearsal dinner, including breaking every dish in sight and peeing on a flower arrangement, and then he drives off acting as if his team just won the Superbowl. This is early on his list. If he’s genuinely nice to begin with, I don’t buy that he’d enjoy selling his soul quite so much.
As cool as this concept is, I have major issues with the way it plays out. I can’t stand the trope of the evil corporation that targets individual people and toys with them for no apparent reason. I understand the movie’s desire not to over-explain the mechanics of the Game, and I’m glad they’re left largely mysterious. But we really need to know what the organization behind all this is getting out of it beyond “seeing how far people will go for money.” No corporation, no matter how heartless, spends millions of dollars just for the pleasure of watching one single person degrade himself for financial gain.
It also bothered me that task #12 is not a task at all. Elliot follows an old woman out into the woods for reasons that aren’t totally clear and helps her string up a metal cable near her trailer, presumably to hang laundry on. Then he sees a gang of bikers speeding down the road in their direction and realizes that the cable is stretched tight across the road at neck height. He undoes it at the last second and they cruise by unharmed, but in the meantime the old woman has strung up a second cable fifty yards down the road; and the bikers, after being offered money by an unseen third party, turn around and ride straight into it. The scene is horrific but it involves absolutely no action on Elliot’s part. He doesn’t agree to do anything and he’s clearly not at fault for the bikers’ deaths. It felt like the filmmakers momentarily abandoned the central conflict of the movie in favor of showing us something horrific and gross. We find out later that task #13 is always the same: you have to kill a family member. If task #12 is the second hardest, it should be a doozy. The scene itself is, but the action required from Elliot is almost nonexistent.
I also wish the filmmakers hadn’t tried to give 13 Sins a hopeful ending. Elliot wins the game but forfeits his winnings by killing one of the game’s administrators (Ron Perlman). Then he calls his fiancee “just to hear [her] voice” and she laughingly tells him someone called her up and offered her six grand to eat a fly, which she of course turned down because “it’s vile.” No mention of the fact that it’s their wedding day and she hasn’t seen him since he destroyed their reception hall and fled from the cops the day before. Elliot conveniently forgets to mention that he’s bleeding out from a stab wound inflicted by his brother, who’s now dead, along with his father. No biggie! They’re in love and unencumbered by ill-gotten gains, so everything’s OK.
The film seems to imply that it’s the money that would have corrupted Elliot, not everything he did to get it. So by killing Ron Perlman’s character and forfeiting all the money, he somehow absolves himself of all the other bad deeds he’s done. I’ll accept him not going to jail since Ron Perlman has supposedly fixed all that before Elliot decides to kill him in cold blood. But some sort of consequences would be appropriate for a hero who spends nearly the entire movie making decisions that hurt the people around him.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.