DVD Review: 13

Posted on October 2, 2012 by Ben

Review by Kit Rathenar

Perhaps accidentally, there’s something grimly topical about Géla Babluani’s 13. In the run-up to an election that’s seeing America tear itself apart over the question of whether its citizens should be free to die in the street if they don’t have health insurance, this movie opens by introducing us to Vince (Sam Riley), whose father is in need of life-saving surgery that his family can’t afford. Vince works as an electrician; while on a call he overhears the owner of the house discussing an unspecified means whereby he plans to make a vast sum in a day, only to die of a drug overdose mere minutes later. In desperation, Vince steals the all-important envelope that was meant to lead the dead man to his chance of a fortune. Following the instructions in it, he is drawn into the dark underworld of Russian Roulette, where wealthy men wager millions on the desperate and the damned who are willing to have guns put to their heads in exchange for the chance of walking away rich. It’s a harrowing scenario, and yet somehow a horribly believable one.

While 13 is an American remake of the director’s own earlier work 13 Tzameti, which I haven’t seen, I was impressed immediately to realise that despite a stellar cast (featuring such luminaries as Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, and Ray Winstone), a glossied-up Hollywood thriller this film is assuredly not. The camerawork is pragmatic, simple and unforgiving; the characters and sets eschew magazine-cover perfection in favour of a worn, lived-in, and deeply human aesthetic that frames the brutality of 13’s subject matter in a deeply apposite fashion. Resisting the urge to glamorise his setting, Babluani instead adds little touches that emphasise the underground, seedy nature of the Russian Roulette game despite the wealth of the men bankrolling it; from the hand-painted bare bulb that acts as the players’ firing cue, to the master of ceremonies balancing precariously on a simple stepladder as he directs the proceedings. I’m glad Babluani chose to take this route, as it lessens the chance that the viewer might themselves try to romanticise the subject matter. Instead, we’re forced to come face to face with the horror of it just as Vince himself does.

And speaking of Vince, despite great performances across the board this film indisputably belongs to Sam Riley. As Vince is forced through the rounds of the game, we watch his innocence and personal morality burn away like paper under a blowtorch until by the end of the film he’s gone from a naive youth whose only fault was his desire to help his family, to a man and a killer whom no sane person would want to mess with. With relatively minimal dialogue to work with, Riley acts this transformation with stark believability while still firmly retaining the viewer’s sympathy for Vince’s plight; the white-knuckle tension of the game’s final sequence, the “duel” in which two men stand with their guns to each other’s heads and pull their triggers, is truly intense and credit for that has to rest in large part with Riley.

Sadly, the very success of this scene is what sets up 13 for a last-fence fall. The denouement of the duel is everything that could be asked of a thriller’s finale; but instead of ending on that high note Babluani chooses to add a ten-minute coda which ties up several loose ends of narrative but does so at the cost of draining the film’s energy and closing on a minor-key whimper that’s all the more depressing after the spectacular bang he’s already given us. I’d have happily seen this cut in favour of a bit more insight into the supporting cast. In particular I’d have loved to see more of Alexander Skarsgård as Jack, Vince’s handler at the game who shows his young charge a kindness and patience that fascinate by their very unexpectedness; or of Mickey Rourke, as the washed-up but likeable desperado Jefferson. And there’s an entire additional film that could clearly have been made about Jason Statham’s Jasper and Ray Winstone as his brother Ronald – what kind of man enters his own mentally handicapped brother into a game of Russian Roulette anyway, let alone repeatedly?

Although then again, that question does nicely summarise the sense of lingering unsettlement that I took away from 13. Despite its flawed finish, this is still a savagely entertaining little film that nicely blends character, tension and moral challenge, helped rather than hindered by its cold aesthetic and no-frills cinematography. Recommended.

13 is available on Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray on 8th October, from Anchor Bay.

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