Writer/director Ron Morales gives us a new spin on a familiar kidnapping yarn but tells a story that’s so believable and grounded you’d think it was a documentary. A superbly paced and intense flick, this is the kind of film we don’t get to see every day but would wish there were more of. In a world where we have films like Ransom and Taken, people walking out of Gracelandmight likely comment that Morales’ film is taken, er, taking its sweet time because this is a slow film. Yet that’s the point, it’s not about wiretaps, SWAT teams, a Tony Scott style of camera work, or an adrenaline-fueled rescue. Not at all. The focus of Morales’ film is the human element, with an overarching emphasis on society, and one thing’s for sure, this ain’t no Hollywood film.
Yet what Graceland lacks in rapid fire pacing (again, something one might expect in a kidnapping film) it makes up for with layers of complexity and entirely compelling performances. It’s a simple plot and set up, but it keeps both tension and interest high. Reminiscent of a film like The Disappearance of Alice Creed, as far as originality and simplicity, but it’s even more devastating at times with Morales ‘ socially relevant subject matter and commitment to realism. Graceland is the story of a father’s relentless quest to find and rescue his kidnapped daughter which feels so scarily real you’d think you were watching the events in real time. A brief but impacting story Morales takes us so deep into the messy Filipino underworld that the 84 minutes feels like a lifetime. Further it’s one world that, like the main character Marlon (Arnold Reyes), we want to escape from as quickly as possible.
Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is employed by Filipino Congressman Manuel Changho for both official and unofficial business. His “unofficial” work is split between being chauffeur to his daughter by day and taking the Congressman to seedy sex clubs by night. He tries not to pass judgement but worries about keeping his job to provide for his family and ailing wife. The former and more importantly at present the latter is the reason to remain in such unsavory employ and Marlon regularly checks his moral compass at the door. So much so he thinks he might never need to reclaim it again. But it’s not his fault. He’s caught up in something much bigger than himself and he’s just trying to make it home each night.
Marlon has been working for the last 8 years and is very nearly family to Changho but really he’s more like a pet and can be as easily dismissed when the Congressman’s career is jeopardized in a sex scandal. After getting his walking papers Marlon, on his last assignment, is driving his daughter Elvie and the Congressman’s daughter home from school when a kidnapping for ransom attempt befalls both young girls. The horrifying alteration changes everything thus sending Marlon on an out of control quest to get his daughter back with little to no means at his disposal.
The entire trip down the sickening rabbit hole gets messier and thicker dealing Congressman’s family, the private investigator they’ve hired and finally the kidnappers and to complicate matter no one involved or affected is throwing straight dice. But oddly enough Marlon has more in common with the kidnappers than anyone else as they too have been wronged by Changho’s nefarious deeds and sinful recreations. Regardless there is no lesser of any of the evils and Marlon is pulled in three ways between the parties to the limits of his sanity but he never takes his mind off his one goal, getting his daughter Elvie back.
Just like so many instances, scenes and sequences in Graceland, the abduction scene is positively shocking and the story becomes both tense and sobering. Even more so considering this film is based on real life events in the Philippines. The spotlight Morales’ story shines on these events (which really do happen) is impacting to both Filipino citizens and non. It’s more eye-opening than the nightly news or even something as soberingly factual as 60 Minutes. Again it feels so eerily real at times and only the cinematic twists, turns and drama (which are subtle if not completely downplayed) keep us from believing that events are really happening as you watch them.
But aside from being a commercially entertaining film (replete with its disheartening storyline) Graceland primarily highlights the seedy and unsavory happenings in Morales’ home country of the Philippines. Not a call to action per se but it brings to light atrocities that should not be ignored. It also raises so many questions about society in general and touches on universal themes and motivations. Yet Morales’s story does one better by casting everyone in a (somewhat) guilty light and asks us how far we would go in Marlon’s situation and then complicates it by asking who can you trust when law enforcement is as ruthless as and indiscernible from the men they’re after.
With just two film credits to his name (as a writer/director, there’s plenty more credits in the electrical/camera/lighting department) Ron Morales is going to be a name to watch. The non-traditional approach to this kidnapping thriller is as refreshing as it is shocking. But while this takes place on the other side of the planet many of its messages and themes of family and survival are universal and relatable to all walks of life. With a combination of great editing and pacing, a streamlined script, compelling actors and a story line that sucks you in as much as it pushes you away, Graceland fires on all cylinders.