There are scenes in 13 that successfully elicit a terrifying visceral thrill. There can be no other reaction to a plot that centers on underground Russian roulette and numerous shots that consist of imprisoned men holding guns to each other’s heads. I’ve never fired or even held a gun in my life, and yet the movies have made me aware of that moment just before the trigger is pulled – that solitary, agonizingly tense moment when time seems to stop and absolutely nothing else in the world exists apart from you and your target. What will happen next? Only one way to find out. This movie has that kind of nail-biting suspense. There’s no purpose to the game; these dueling men are forced into participating and have no quarrel with each other. It exists solely for the amusement of the fabulously wealthy, who apparently have nothing better to do.
Adapted by director Gela Babluani from his own 2005 French film 13 Tzameti (unseen by me), 13 is gritty, downbeat, and profoundly disturbing. It’s not all that compelling, in part because it makes an overstated and unoriginal point, but mostly because many of the situations the characters find themselves in are highly implausible. I wonder, though, if that’s a natural side effect of stories with allegorical subtexts; certain societal messages, I believe, can only be heard and understood within the context of a heightened reality. As long as we’re engaged, it may not matter how far-fetched a movie turns out to be. I admit, though, I didn’t come to this realization until about three-quarters of the way through. Prior to that moment, I was caught up in making pointless observations about how certain scenes were not physically or dramatically possible.
It tells the story of a young Ohio electrician named Vince Ferro (Sam Riley), whose family is desperately in need of money. The biggest financial drain is his father, who lies in a hospital bed bandaged and immobile after a horrible accident nearly killed him. While doing wiring work at his clients’ home, Vince overhears a vague conversation between the husband and wife, in which talk of a good paying job comes up. As an added incentive, Vince notices an envelope in the husband’s hand. In a rather convenient twist of fate, the husband dies overdosing on heroine, allowing Vince to steal the envelope and take his place. He has absolutely no idea what he’s in for, but when large sums of money are at stake, there’s almost no telling the risks some people will take.
The envelope contains both a set of instructions and a cell phone. After boarding a train to Pennsylvania and checking into a hotel, a mysterious stranger calls Vince on the cell phone with further instructions. He then meets a driver (Alexander Skarsgård) who takes him to one of those reliable mansions in the middle of the woods. You know the kind of place I’m talking about; it’s a cold, secluded estate made of bricks and sculpted masonry, where eccentric millionaires regularly convene to indulge in their twisted pastimes. Despite fessing up to taking a dead man’s identity, Vince is assigned the number thirteen and forced to take part in the aforementioned roulette games, where his life will be betted on along with the lives of other “contestants.” These include an American smuggled out of a Mexican prison (Mickey Rourke) and a newly released mental patient (Ray Winstone), whose bettor is his very own brother (Jason Statham).
The emcee (Michael Shannon) shouts out instructions to the “players” as if a blood vessel in his head were about to burst. This deeply unpleasant character, whose intensity betrays a curious sense of focus, initially comes off as a grating one-note typecast but is soon revealed as the film’s emotional precursor; the way he speaks and moves gives the viewer insight as to how the rest of the movie will go. As he miraculously makes his way through the rounds – and I should point out that each round sees an additional bullet put into the gun barrel – Vince will make the understandable transition from frightened to a state of manic desperation. He knows that other men have his life in their hands, and vice versa.
Although highly devastating, the ending effectively forces us to think beyond the scope of what we see onscreen. Everyone is a victim in this movie, even those we might consider villains – and for a couple of characters, that distinction is separated by a very fine line. The conclusion is inescapable, if a little too obvious: Absolutely no one wins in the frantic pursuit of money. Is it at all a coincidence that Vince is assigned a number many consider unlucky? I can’t say that I came away from 13 with a better understanding of human nature, although I can say that I was intrigued all throughout, and that it did what it set out to do and gave me a good thrill. It also kept me guessing, although not about the plot so much as the tone. Action is fairly predictable in most movies, but sometimes there’s no way of knowing how a character is feeling at any given moment.
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