The disclaimer that opens “The Fear of 13” declares that all the testimony we’re about to hear from “Nick,” the documentary’s sole subject and monologuist, has been verified as fact. But as Nick tells his story over 96 riveting minutes, the particulars are so outrageous that the disclaimer seems like a wry joke akin to “Fargo,” which framed a fiction with a nonsensical line about depicting events exactly as they occurred, “out of respect for the dead.” “The Fear of 13” is the classic stranger-than-fiction scenario, but it’s also a testament to the power of storytelling, which can make the truth sound like embellishment. That’s the real subject of David Sington’s sharply articulated one-man show, which adds few cinematic flourishes to Nick’s vivid mental picture. The doc bowed in the U.K. soon after its premiere at the London Film Festival last year, but while it deserves a home in the States, the stripped-down production may limit its prospects.
Best known for his 2007 documentary on the Apollo missions, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” which he co-directed with Christopher Riley (who co-produces here), Sington has a flair for investing fresh tension in past events. Perhaps because the case of Nick Yarris isn’t as well known as the Apollo program, Sington introduces his subject simply as Nick and operates under the reasonable assumption that the audience is hearing this story for the first time. He also leads with the startling primer that Nick, nearly two decades after receiving a death sentence for rape and murder, requested an expedited timetable for his execution. And with that white flag flapping overhead, “The Fear of 13” sets about telling the serpentine tale of how he slipped the noose.
Though dressed in a crisp button-down rather than prison rags, Nick recalls his experiences from a confined, gray-black space that Sington and his cinematographer, Clive North, frame like a starkly lit cell. The film circles back to the details of his 1982 conviction in Pennsylvania — and back further still to a defining incident from his childhood — but it starts with Nick’s first memories of prison and moves forward from there. The seemingly impossible stories start with his recollection of a two-year stint in a prison block where the inmates were not allowed to speak, lest they be beaten by the guards. Within this oppressive environment, Nick remembers an intimate relationship between cellmates named “Wesley” and “Butch,” who were eventually forced apart by the system. One of them sang a defiant song that echoed through the block, knowing that he’d be brutalized for it. Did it really happen? And did it happen as Nick describes it? Maybe. In the telling, it’s like a scene out of a movie.
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And so it goes for other stories in “The Fear of 13,” even the ones that are more easily verified, like the successful escape attempt that had him fleeing from New York to Daytona Beach, stealing and scrapping every step of the way. According to Nick, his escape during a prison transfer was accidental, the result of a drastic miscommunication between two inept jailers that turned a pitstop at a gas-station bathroom into a chaotic shootout. He was eventually picked up — through yet another outrageous series of events — and landed in a maximum security institution, where his life took a turn to the transcendent.
The key section of the movie plays like “The Shawshank Redemption” in monologue, as Nick endeavored to free his mind, even if his body couldn’t follow. He taught himself to read. He expanded his vocabulary, learning words like “triskaidekaphobia,” the obscure fear that gives the doc its title. He read more than 1,000 books in three years, from literary classics to the lurid crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. And it’s here that “The Fear of 13” coalesces as a fascinating fusion of real-life experiences and the storytelling bravado of the authors he came to admire.
Though Sington’s stylized lighting and interstitials owe something to Errol Morris, he wisely refrains from straight-up re-creations of the events Nick is describing, because the images would seem like redundant, banal extension of what the audience is already hearing. Instead, “The Fear of 13” stays tight on its narrator’s face and cuts away only to visual accents that evoke the scene indirectly, more to capture the mood than to illustrate the story. The one exception is a series of flashbacks to Nick’s childhood that tease an awful event that would come to define the early part of his life. Treating that incident like a bombshell revelation is the film’s only serious misstep, a dramatic jolt that veers uncomfortably into exploitation.
Yet the grip of Nick’s extraordinary yarn never loosens. Even a straightforward account of his conviction, incarceration, appeals, and release would be a fascinating tour through the American justice system, but “The Fear of 13” is anything but straightforward. It’s an impossible story that happens to be true, executed with the casual mastery of barroom tall tale. Sington hangs on every word.