Cocked & loaded

There’s morphine, a spooky mansion and 13 dudes playing Russian Roulette. But is it any fun?

Imagine a game of Russian roulette. Now imagine 13 guys all playing Russian roulette, each with his partially loaded gun pointed at another's head. This is not, surprisingly, the finale of a new Quentin Tarantino movie but the idea behind the icy cool — or rather, deep-frozen — existentialist thriller 13 Tzameti.

Set in a drab, anonymous corner of France, the black-and-white film makes a much more convincing argument against identity theft than any CitiBank commercial. The trouble begins when lowly handyman Sebastien (George Babluani, looking like a sort of French John Mayer) becomes envious of the suspiciously cash-rich couple whose roof he's redoing. He decides to pose as the man of the house in order to pilfer some riches of his own: Following the man's usual routine, he steals his train ticket and wallet and heads for the countryside, where a group of nefarious men wait for him in a spooky mansion in the woods.

By the time they realize they've got the wrong guy, it's too late: Sebastien has unwittingly stumbled into a high-stakes gambling ring, where rich men pay working-class thugs to kill each other so they can place their bets on which one will survive. Doped up on morphine and given the promise of a huge payoff — provided they're left standing — the guys are a mix of the desperate and the sadistic; the movie charts Sebastien's indoctrination from the former into the latter category.

It's a positively diabolical idea for a game show — God knows a murder or two would improve the insufferable Deal or No Deal — but philosophically, 13 Tzameti could stand to be fleshed out a little. Writer-director (and brother of the star) Gela Babluani's script most closely resembles Fight Club in its mix of aggression and narcissism, but it lacks that film's overstimulated, go-for-broke spirit. And you can forget about it having any sort of bearing on the real world. Try all you want to give some deeper meaning to the plot — is it an allegory for unchecked capitalism, or perhaps sadism? — but you'll come up as broke as the men who play the game.

The movie works best as a sort of crystal meth-enhanced episode of the Twilight Zone. Babluani may not be the best writer in the world, but he exhibits a grasp of technique that's reminiscent of a young Roman Polanski, or at least a pre-Requiem for a Dream Darren Aronofsky. His close-ups of sweat-drenched foreheads, juxtaposed with businessmen clutching wads of cash and shouting for blood, communicate more than his wooden dialogue ever could. And the clanking, ominous sound design is almost good enough to make you forgive the cheesy, low-rent score. It's the kind of effective, low-budget work that makes Hollywood take notice. Who knows? If Babluani decides to sell his soul to a big studio, he might be living out his own real-life version of the game in 13 Tzameti.


In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 24 and 25, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 26.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].