Gross, Deadly Game: Blackly amusing "13 Sins" speedy but slowly falls apart

13 Sins (2014)
92 min., rated R.

After proving the horror found-footage subgenre was still a bottomless bag of tricks in 2010's spookily effective "The Last Exorcism," director Daniel Stamm takes a jump into extreme-thriller territory with "13 Sins." It is a remake of the 2006 Thai import "13: Game of Death," but also draws comparison to "Cheap Thrills," released just one month ago. Though both films share a similar "what if?" scenario and stakes, that dementedly entertaining black comedy confined the rising shenanigans to one private location, ridding its desperate protagonists of any seen consequences, and built to a memorably impactful final shot. As a dark and twisted, occasionally tense and cringe-worthy morality-cum-conspiracy ride, "13 Sins" holds one's interest throughout. Alas, writer-director Stamm and co-writer David Birke push their gimmick so far, while softening the blow in their resolution, that the film jumps the rails.

Up to his eyeballs in student loans and credit card debt, namby-pamby New Orleans salesman Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber) has to provide for his lovely, super-understanding fiancée, Shelby (Rutina Wesley), and a baby on the way. The day he goes into work to sit down with his asshole boss (Richard Burgi), he's fired and a heavy deck is stacked against him. Everyone relies upon him, including his racist father (Tom Bower), who's about to be evicted from an assisted living facility, and his mentally disabled brother, Michael (Devon Graye), who gets by on Elliot's insurance. Later that night, a glum Elliot drives up to a red light and receives a cryptic phone call. A man with a cheerful game-show host voice congratulates him for being selected to compete in a "one-of-a-kind game show" with financial need as the cash prize. As if the caller is watching him at that very moment, Elliot is asked to swat a fly that's buzzing around in his car. $1,000 will be credited to his bank account immediately after completing the challenge. With such a challenge as simple as that and the reward quite enticing, he swats the fly and he's in the game. Next: Elliot must eat the fly for $3,000! Sounds gross, but the eleven challenges escalate from there and become even more complicated, amoral and violent, like making a child cry, committing arson at a church, and worse. Every time he successfully completes a challenge, Elliot receives a text message that the promised sum of money has been deposited into his account. If he fails or refuses to complete any of the tasks, it will act as a forfeit of all his winnings. A part of a larger conspiracy, "The Game" is like a double-edged sword, filling the player's bank account but making him perform criminal acts. Trying to set the moral high ground aside, Elliot must make desperate choices as if a gun were pointed to his head. 

After Elliot has committed six felonies, "13 Sins" has already grown absurd and nutty enough with entertainment value still intact, but there comes a point where things become even more frustratingly contrived, ridiculous and underthought. Piling on more arbitrary reveals than it truly needed that one almost hopes Elliot will wake up from a bad dream, the film dares viewers to throw their hands up and check their brain out entirely. The elaborate game is fun for a while, especially when Elliot has to drag a corpse to a diner, prop him up in a booth and then order him a cup of coffee, but eventually, a number of Elliot's crimes are just left dangling and the logistics of the game unsatisfactorily leave us with too many question marks. Think a less soundly executed "The Cabin in the Woods," but who is pulling all of the strings? How is Big Brother capable of overseeing a certain president's assassination? How can others so easily do the puppet masters' bidding? How can the game masters possibly keep tabs on Elliot's every move? A minor thought by comparison, but not bringing Elliot's heartless boss into the game also seems like a missed opportunity. 

Used to playing nice-guy types, Mark Webber acquits himself quite strongly as Elliot, selling the highly emotional notes and arc of self-confidence and assertiveness, while soon questioning the morality of the too-good-to-be-true bribing game he's caught in. Rutina Wesley (TV's "True Blood") lends the most heart as Elliot's wife Shelby, but she disappears too frequently, her character somehow kept entirely in the dark of her soon-to-be-husband's get-rich dilemma. In addition, genre favorite Ron Perlman surprisingly hasn't much to do as a gruff detective, except growl as if he were still Hellboy without make-up, while Pruitt Taylor Vince sneaks around as a mysterious former contestant in charge of the exposition dump. Starting out as lean, wicked amusement, "13 Sins" barrels its improbable premise along at a kinetic pace and then, unfortunately, ends as a dumb, forgettable folly. There's nothing wrong with a folly, but the filmmakers seemed capable of keeping the ball rolling instead of dropping it so early.

Grade: C +