Graceland is a remarkably accomplished debut from writer/director Ron Morales. It’s a crime thriller that’s more than a little redolent of the early work of the Coen brothers, but is still completely its own thing. Out-of-the-gate arresting, fantastically acted, and unendingly emotionally intense, the film will likely go overlooked by all but a few devoted cinema buffs this year, which is a shame.
Marlon (Arnold Reyes), a valet for corrupt Filipino politician Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), finds himself sliding into increasingly dire circumstances. His wife is sick, and he loses his job after a moment of compassion unwittingly exposes Changho’s unsavory sexual proclivities. And then his daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) is mistaken for Changho’s daughter, and is kidnapped and held for ransom by criminals. From there, the walls only draw in closer around Marlon as he tries to get Elvie back while at the same time hiding the fact that she was taken at all. The police detective on the case (Dido De La Paz) suspects that Marlon is the true culprit behind the kidnapping, and the kidnapper’s demands continue to grow stranger, as it becomes clear that there is more than money motivating the crime.
The cast is populated with actors who are seasoned veterans, yet will be unknown to the American audience. This works in the film’s favor, as it will make it easier for audiences to see them only as their characters. Reyes is remarkable, remaining sympathetic even as he is forced to (or talks himself into thinking he has to) do terrible things. De La Paz starts out looking like a stock “dirty cop” character, but slowly unveils different layers as the plot proceeds. In fact, many of the characters undergo dramatic shifts with new plot twists, as they are revealed to be more than what they seem at first. Even the villain.
This is a world where there are the only innocents are the young, and they are nothing but prey for the careless whims of the grown-up. The story touches heavily on the issue of sex trafficking and child prostitution in the Philippines, and a burning sense of indignation fuels it. That sense of moral outrage creates an atmosphere of judgment. What we see in this story are flawed people, complicit in a horrible trade, brought down by the consequences of their compromises and sins. If someone doesn’t lose a loved one, they lose their soul.
The movie looks spectacular in the way that only an incredibly ugly place can. The slums of Manila are a character of their own here. If the viewer is unfamiliar with this world, then it soon seems incredibly, uncomfortable intimate. Morales does not ever shirk from dirtiness, and some of the things on display may be too much for some viewers to take, especially whenever the movie ventures into back alley brothels that employ underage prostitutes.
Graceland is likely to go down as one of the unsung gems of the year. It’s not perfect – in particular, some aspects of the plot and Marlon’s actions don’t wholly make sense after a late-stage reveal. But it’s a terrifically-made, harrowing little film, and fully deserving of an audience.
Graceland is on VOD now and will be in limited theatrical release beginning tomorrow.