Runs Fri., May 17–Thurs., May 23 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 84 minutes.
The device at the heart of Graceland is unsavory but gripping: A flunky for a crooked politician is driving his daughter and his boss’ daughter home from school when kidnappers pounce. The baddies immediately kill one of the girls and drive away with the other, a huge ransom demand trailing in their wake.
The twist? The kidnappers have killed the wrong girl, and the driver is the only person who knows that his daughter, not the rich guy’s kid, is the one held captive. As it happens, this is not the only twist waiting in Ron Morales’ Graceland, a Philippine suspense picture that puts the hammer down, hard.
Along with his general fraudulence, the politico is also a pedophile, a super-creep in a seamless turn by veteran Filipino actor Menggie Cobarrubias. Thanks to his depravity, we sink not merely into a horror show of bribery and kidnapping but also sex trafficking—and this rough-edged production does not opt for the chilling discretion of the recent Eden, preferring instead to clump its way right into various dens of iniquity.
The driver, Marlon (played by angel-faced, slack-jawed Arnold Reyes), is mercilessly put-upon: He hides the evidence of the dead girl and maintains the illusion she’s still alive, while fending off harassment by the kidnappers and questions from a hostile cop (Dido De La Paz, in an eyeball-bulging performance) who knows there’s something messy about Marlon’s story. And if we haven’t mentioned Marlon’s bedridden wife, well, rest assured this subplot isn’t quite the sympathy-builder it might seem.
Morales spares us nothing in pushing this corkscrewed story through its tight 83 minutes. Graceland raises the question of where socially aware drama tips into exploitation. But by the looks of things, it was never meant to be subtle. This movie wants to make an impact, and in its grungy, free-swinging way, it does.
That impact comes from the depiction of a criminal world but also from the everyday glimpses of Manila that Morales uses as his setting. Class prejudice, official corruption, and seemingly ubiquitous trash form the backdrop for the plot, and these impressions might linger longer than the tale of a kidnapped child. Scenes set literally in a vast garbage dump become almost indistinguishable from scenes set in ordinary neighborhoods, and riverbeds teem with discarded junk. In short, it’s not a travel brochure for Manila, but an effective, almost toxic, journey to the underworld.