In its opening scenes, 13 (Tzameti) almost seems like a joke, a Saturday Night Live-style parody of a French drama. The flat video look, the austere black-and-white cinematography, the almost caricaturish French-noir faces, the contrast of extremely odd behavior with the most mundane of life details It all seems exaggerated to a fault. But first-time writer-director Géla Babluani (son of Georgian filmmaker Temur Babluani) is just laying down the ground rules, establishing a scenario as stark and extreme as his images suggest. It's necessary for his story, which is simple enough to be described in a sentence, but gets all its value from its deliberate pacing and relentless, outsized tension.
Géla's brother Georges Babluani stars as a young odd-jobber whose introversion masks a desperate determination to better his position. While repairing a roof, he contrives to overhear a series of conversations implying that his drug-addicted, disintegrating employer-of-the-moment Philippe Passon is about to acquire a great deal of money through mysterious, shady means. When Passon abruptly dies, Babluani steals his train ticket and rendezvous instructions, and attempts to bluff his way into whatever setup Passon was pursuing. When confronted with what he has to do to earn the cash—it'd be a shame to give away too much, though it's all in the film's trailer—he tries to back out, but learns that isn't an option. Much of the rest of the film simply observes his increasingly glassy-eyed participation in a grotesque game played by desperate men for the amusement of rich gamblers.
It's significant that few of the men Babluani encounters along the way reveal their names, and fewer still reveal any sort of personality; once he leaves familiar territory, he's the only real person in the story, which must be exactly how his character feels. In a way, 13 (Tzameti) is a nearly gore-free take on Hostel, another film about the inhumanity that comes with wealth and boredom, and about desperate attempts to survive in a place that's simultaneously culturally and geographically alien. Much like Hostel, 13 (Tzameti) spends a great deal of time on tension-building setup, and an equally long time on the detailed exploration of a nightmarish survival scenario. But 13 (Tzameti) traffics in psychological pain rather than physical agony, and it's far less dulling to watch. Géla Babluani is unmistakably a first-timer, and his debut project is raw and rough-edged. But he aces the way simple images can make the most of a simple story, and the way it's possible to trap audiences inside the head of a desperate man by giving them nowhere else to go.