Aspiring to the heights of a Jean-Pierre Melville or Fritz Lang but proving to be more along the mediocre lines of an M. Night Shyamalan, Géla Babluani delivers gimmicky thrills posing as hard-nosed neo-noir with 13 (Tzameti). Working as a roofer, financially strapped 22-year-old Sebastien (George Babluani, the filmmaker’s real-life brother) is screwed out of his paycheck when his employer Godon (Philippe Passon) Ods on morphine. Having previously heard Godon discuss a mysterious, lucrative out-of-town job, Sebastien decides to take the now-deceased man’s place, following a stolen letter’s instructions to a secluded Parisian countryside mansion where dour old fat cats and desperate degenerates gamble on people as their own Most Dangerous Game.
Withholding crucial information as a means of ratcheting up its atmosphere of dissonant, disorienting anxiety, 13 (Tzameti) has a tantalizing edginess during its protagonist’s car and train-hopping trip to his unknown destination (in which he’s also followed by the police). Yet the revelation of its central conceit—that (spoiler alert) Sebastien has unwittingly enrolled himself in a mass game of Russian Roulette—causes the entire affair to quickly and completely deflate, since it’s more-or-less preordained that, as the audience’s sole surrogate through this maze of back-alley betting, Sebastien will defy the bad luck of his assigned number (he’s player 13) to survive to the final round.
Cribbing liberally from predecessors both big (Fight Club, The Deer Hunter) and small (Intacto), Babluani shows a flair for grungy ambience—the peeling walls of his locales have a tangible nastiness—and vivid off-kilter close-ups that nicely complement his star’s silently expressive countenance. Shot in high-contrast black and white, the film’s rigorous starkness recalls the work of Robert Bresson in visual but, alas, not moral terms, as the director’s debut—never bothering with much character, situational, or thematic depth—is only about its surprise-reliant plot machinations, a detrimental shortcoming considering that its one-shot story plateaus at the very moment it should be climaxing. As a result, despite all the care put into its desolate cinematography, 13 (Tzameti) ultimately turns out to be simply a stylistic stunt masquerading as a modern treatise on the dire consequences of attempting to alter one’s set-in-stone fate.