I’m not entirely sure what the message is at the center of Lindsay Gossling’s 13 Minutes. In fact, I’m pretty sure there isn’t one. A line of text runs before the end credits stating how the film honors those who have been affected by extreme weather, but there’s no mention of climate change, what you can do to help, or anything beyond the reality that extreme weather and affected people exist. And that’s how it treats everything across the board. Because despite being a disaster film, Gossling also injects hot button issues like racism, abortion, immigration, disability, and homophobia into its fabric without saying anything of substance about them. She merely acknowledges their existence as something to deal with. A better title might be Both Sides: The Movie.
Because what point is there in setting up these topics if you aren’t going to engage with them? A complete refusal to mention climate change means that what occurs on-screen is depicted as something that’s wholly unavoidable. People like the power couple of weatherman Brad (Peter Facinelli) and emergency liaison Kim (Amy Smart) are thus the heroes because they stay at their post to ensure their audience is informed and their safety checklists are completed even though they can’t know for sure whether their deaf daughter (Shaylee Mansfield’s Peyton) was retrieved by her babysitter and huddled in their bathtub for protection. If you do what they say, you’ll be okay. If you don’t, it’s up to God to protect you—citizen and undocumented alike. He doesn’t discriminate.
Well, that’s not entirely true. God does discriminate insofar as allowing America to be “great” enough to heal an illegal immigrant of his injuries before shipping him back over the border. Taxpayers like the bigoted, racist, and Pro-Life Rick (Trace Atkins) and Tammy (Anne Heche) can pat themselves on the backs for that warped sense of involuntary “charity” just like Leesa Neidel’s real estate agent does when allowing Ana (Paz Vega) to meet her during a hair appointment to sign the paperwork on a house with a commission that’s “not even worth bothering.” Gossling populates this little town with so many horrible people that you assume the tornadoes are coming to purge them from society. It’s therefore somewhat jarring when she lets impending tragedy provide them redemption instead.
Why not, though? Just because the owner of the hotel where Ana works is prone to racial insults and cowardice doesn’t mean he can’t also pull up his pants and help save members of the same ethnic group he so ruthlessly denigrated when they are in “actual” need. He’s just a red-blooded American providing jobs (exploitation of the same illegals he rails against—like Rick—to fill those jobs on the cheap is his “right”) rather than hand-outs. You need a living wage, an hour off, or a favor beyond what he’s already providing? Stop being a freeloader. You have a bloodied hand after surviving a natural disaster? Here’s the shirt off my back because I’m a “good” Christian. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. He’s still an asshole.
Gossling supplies a scene where Tammy ambushes nineteen-year-old Maddy (Sofia Vassilieva) with an ultrasound and Pro-Life rhetoric despite the latter wanting an abortion. Eric (James Austin Kerr)—the father of Maddy’s unborn child—becomes a worse human being with every new revelation. Maddy’s mother Jess (Thora Birch) is Pro-Choice, but still holds God as the reason she is so that no one can tell Tammy she’s not allowed her own “choice” too. There’s Carlos (Yancey Arias) struggling to learn English opposite an exasperated Rick only to discover Rick knows Spanish and chose to be difficult. And don’t get me started on Luke’s (Will Peltz) struggle to tell his parents he’s gay because Mom and Dad disowning him is ultimately their right too. Please don’t judge them.
Don’t judge anyone on-screen because they’re all merely trying to live their lives. That doing so infringes on any others is merely an unfortunate reality we all must contend with just like the weather. You “want” to be gay? Well, deal with your parents’ rejection. You “want” to build a life in America? Well, deal with the fact that they’ll hire you and pay cash so they can cut ties as soon as they can replace you. These aren’t presented as questions of right versus wrong. They are merely “choices” you must weigh and accept. “Wrong” doesn’t therefore exist. You are right for coming to America and they are right for using you before throwing you out. Because in this world, God saves the worthy. We don’t.
And that cannot be discounted upon seeing the destruction wrought. This town gets annihilated, but (spoiler alert) no one dies. There are few actual happy endings, but everyone can choose where they’re going next without reconciling the consequences as anything more than a binary choice devoid of complexity. Can Luke live openly? Yes. Must he sacrifice having his parents in his life to do so? Also, yes. Can Ana and Carlos have a future together? Yes. Might that only be possible by going back to Mexico? Also, yes. And I guess that’s all okay because America is now a utopia without prejudice or harm. Why? Because acknowledging victims exist means perpetrators do too. 13 Minutes would rather everyone be a victim to God’s will than recognize man’s hate.
Gossling is telling us that Rick and Tammy have the right to be bigots no matter how many lives they harm. And, unfortunately, they do. What she refuses to also concede, however, is that the harmed are worse off because of it. The Lukes of this world don’t just take a deep breath and say goodbye to the life they had as though they’re financially secure and able to start anew tomorrow somewhere else. The Anas and Carloses don’t smile and walk themselves over the border as though ICE is populated by a bunch of happy-go-lucky social workers sad to see them go. Rick and Tammy’s decisions ruin lives. Climate change ruins lives. You can’t accept those realities without also understanding intent. Hate shouldn’t be a choice.
What we get then is an extremely misguided film that’s set up to cleanse sins before deciding to merely repackage them as privilege. There are zero stakes since Gossling knows that killing characters would mean playing God by telling audiences who deserves to live. She’d rather everyone live so no one can be seen as morally superior or luckier than the next. It’s honestly worse than if she had willfully killed all the vulnerable characters to say aloud what comes through anyway. Because the moment you don’t denounce what Rick, Tammy, the hotel owner, Eric, and others do, is the moment you condone their actions. This town hides behind God to look in the mirror as worthy citizens of his protection rather than the den of demons it is.
13 Minutes opens in limited release on October 29th.