Graceland: Film Review

Drafthouse Films
Venality supersedes morality when self-serving adults sacrifice their children’s welfare.

Tense, Philippines-set crime thriller significantly raises the stakes for Ron Morales’ second feature.

The social and economic pitfalls facing the vast urban underclass of Manila’s sprawling metropolitan area are depicted with unflinching regard in Ron Morales’ observant low-budget Filipino feature, a blend of ruthless crime drama and grim thriller. Latching onto issues uncomfortably familiar in far-flung corners of the world, including human trafficking, endemic official corruption and the pitiless consequences of organized crime, Graceland could leverage supportive word of mouth to expand Drafthouse Films’ platform theatrical release and multi-format VOD distribution beyond predictable urban centers to achieve broader recognition.

Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) works as a driver for local congressman Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias), navigating the metro-Manila region while caring for his young daughter Evie (Ella Guevara) and looking after his chronically ill wife, whose long-term hospitalization is a source of constant anguish. In addition to shuttling around the congressman, his wife and their daughter Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayod), Villar has the unsavory task of selecting underage girls from Manila’s brothels to sleep with Chango, an unrepentant pedophile. Ironically these victims are barely older then both Villar and Chango’s daughters, who are best friends despite their differing social classes.

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After picking Evie and Sophia up after school one afternoon, Villar and the girls get carjacked by an armed kidnapper disguised as a cop intending to hold Sophia for ransom. Forced to drive to a remote location, Villar is viciously beaten unconscious and when he comes to, his beloved daughter has vanished. A phone call from the kidnappers directs him to tell the congressman to prepare a substantial payment for the safe return of Chango’s child, while they hold Evie captive to ensure Villar’s cooperation.

As Villar desperately casts about for any leads that might help him locate Evie -- convinced that his patron’s reluctance to pay the ransom may result in her death -- the kidnappers gradually reveal their ulterior motive behind the abduction: exposing the details of Chango’s predatory sexual activities to the media. Meanwhile, a corrupt cop working for the congressman pressures Villar to reveal whether he had any role in staging the crime to obtain a share of the ransom. With his options narrowing on all sides, Villar must determine the right combination of moves that could liberate his daughter from her captors while clearing him of official suspicion.

At times almost teetering on the verge of melodrama, the punishing twists of Morales’ unrelenting script quickly dispel any air of easy sentimentality. The spare, tightly wound narrative ultimately turns on the hard-eyed, relentless efficacy of the plot, as well as the certainty of Reyes’ performance.

Surrounded by cynical criminality, Villar finds himself with few options if he’s to avoid sinking to the level of his tormentors, resulting in a palpable despair that gradually develops in Reyes’ drawn features, confused speech and wounded body language. Both menacing and repugnant as the corrupt politician, Cobarrubias and Dido de la Paz as his sleazy police henchman come off as appropriately abhorrent, while the two professional young actresses impressively acquit themselves in their challenging roles.

Morales shoots the Manila region’s bleak urban landscapes and low-rent red light districts from an almost furtive perspective, with off-center framing, handheld sequences and grimy imagery expertly captured by cinematographer Sung Rae Cho conveying the characters’ escalating desperation.

The unfamiliar locations and casual crime characteristic of the film’s setting may initially appear well-removed from the concerns of everyday Americans, but with violence against children and random, unprovoked public assaults making headlines on a disturbingly frequent basis in the U.S., Graceland’s concerns may in actuality hit distressingly close to home.

Opens: April 26 (Drafthouse Films)

Production company: Imprint Pictures

Cast: Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, Dido de la Paz, Leon Miguel, Ella Guevara, Marife Necesito, Patricia Ona Gayod
Director-writer: Ron Morales
Producers: Rebecca Lundgren, Sam Rider
Executive producers: Eric Ulrich, David Raymond, Theo Brooks
Director of photography: Sung Rae Cho
Production designer: Roland Rubenecia
Music: Adam Schoenberg, Steven Schoenberg
Editors: James Lesage, Ron Morales, Jorge Olortegui

No rating, 84 minutes

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