Movie Review: Graceland
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Well-made films transport audiences to foreign worlds using themes and storytelling elements that make strange environments resonate despite their unfamiliarity. Filipino writer-director Ron Morales’ second feature, “Graceland,” dives into the underbelly of the complicated Manila crime world with a disturbing story of lies, intrigue and revenge that connects on a universal level despite its specific context. Austin’s Drafthouse Films is distributing the feature that played at Fantastic Fest last year.
Morales’ shaky camera and off-centered framing lend a jarring and naturalistic feel to the story of Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), the exhausted and underappreciated personal assistant of congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias). Early scenes illuminate that Marlon’s job extends beyond driving the congressman. He also helps cover up potentially damning secrets for his boss. An impoverished man of faith, Marlon appears to have little choice in his servitude. His wife lies in a hospital room in need of an organ transplant.
Despite his loyal service, Marlon loses his job when the congressman’s name appears in a scandalous story on the front page of the newspaper. Frustrated and confused, Marlon picks up his daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) and her best friend, the congressman’s daughter Sophia (Patricia Gayod), as his final job for the Changho. A police officer stops a fast-driving and aggravated Marlon and enters his car. A sudden burst of violence and a thrilling plot twist lead to a kidnapping that sets off a convoluted and disorienting chain of events.
Marlon attempts to keep the news from the congressman and his wife, Marcy (Marife Necesito), who has her own set of secrets, but things get more complicated when the police find out about the crime. Led by detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz), the police have motives as muddled as the kidnappers.
A long-haired and expressionless man named Visel (Leon Miguel) serves as point man for the kidnappers, who demand an exorbitant price from the Changho and his wife, whose relationship takes a beating from their sudden loss.
The search for the girls twists and turns amid a filthy Philippines landscape rendered in slate grays, the sun never casting light on the messy situation. The trail to the girls runs through post-apocalyptic looking landfills and hot, jaundiced investigation rooms, eventually making its way into the disturbing world of sex slavery.
Characters’ intentions and alliances shift with each bit of new information. The puzzle continually rearranges but never seems to fit together. Morales’ lensing and editing lend the proceedings a harried feel. He repeatedly ties the story and characters’ emotions into knots only to let them fray into a disorganized web. Reyes, wide-eyed and sweaty, propels the movie with a palpable fear and anxiety exacerbated by his own lies. He creates in Marlon a sympathetic but tragic figure who, despite his best intentions, can’t harness control of the rapidly devolving situation. Just when it seems Marlon is a mere innocent rocked by a tumultuous sea of corruption, Morales gives the story another wrinkle.
“Graceland” paints a disturbing picture of a lawless world of vigilante justice while illustrating the intrinsic desire to protect those we love. It is one of the bleakest movies you’ll see all year, but its dramatic contours mark Morales as a filmmaker with the ability to craft a tight and unnerving story.