Film Review – Graceland
Ron Morales’s Graceland (2012) is a mostly effective thriller hailing from the Philippines. Being Filipino myself, I’m glad to see films from there making their way to the States, because at this point (at least in the mainstream) they are still few and far between. Even better is how Morales gives us a story that doesn’t simply paint the country in any manipulative way. I’ve seen too many works from other countries that solely try to show their culture in the most positive fashion imaginable. Here, these are real characters in tense situations. No one is perfect, everyone has their secrets, and the moral line between right and wrong is clearly blurred. This makes the film—imperfect as it is—much more thoughtful than your random, run-of-the-mill crime story. If anything, this is a good stepping stone, showcasing what the country has to offer to world cinema.
Our main character is Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), a father and husband struggling to make ends meet. His wife is incapacitated due to a serious illness, leaving him to earn an income while raising their young daughter, Elvie (Ella Guevara). Marlon’s main occupation is as a chauffeur to Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), a corrupt local politician. While Marlon has worked for Changho for a long time and has remained dedicated to driving his family wherever they need to go, he unfortunately falls victim to Changho’s corrupt practices. You see, Changho has an affinity for teenage girls, and when the scandal breaks to the news (risking Changho’s position in office), Marlon gets the blame and ultimately loses his job.
But that’s not the main crisis. While driving Elvie and Chango’s daughter Sophia (Patricia Gayod) home from school, Marlon gets ambushed by an unknown assailant. The assailant kidnaps one of the children, but not the one they were aiming for. Instead of taking Sophia as a means for ransom from Changho, Elvie gets kidnapped instead. And this is where we are introduced to a unique problem. We’ve seen kidnapping/ransom movies before (most recently in the Taken films), but not like this. Clearly, Marlon wants to get his daughter back, but the fact that he already has a strained relationship with Changho, combined with the wrong girl being kidnapped, puts him in a very difficult moral position. Should he confess to Changho that it was Elvie that was kidnapped, or should he pretend that it was Sophia as a means to get Changho to help him save Elvie?
This idea—at its base level—is ingenious. Marlon is a character that is forced to make a difficult decision: whether to do something morally wrong in an effort to save his daughter. Morales (who also wrote the script) engages us with not just a suspenseful set-up, but by asking philosophical questions about the meaning of right and wrong. Do the ends justify the means for Marlon? What would we do in the same position? While I applaud the filmmakers for their creativity, this is also the very thing that the film stumbles on. As the plot progresses, there are a number of reveals that, while surprising at first, become curious when viewed afterward. I won’t delve into spoilers, but I will say that, because of what we learn at the end, what happens in the first and second acts requires a pretty high disregard for believability. Certain actions and character choices work out a bit too perfectly here, and the ways some characters are brought to justice (or go unscathed) require a “master plan” that felt shoehorned into the screenplay.
But while some plot points can be viewed as being contrived, the whole package is better than the singular pieces in it. Morales keeps the pace constantly moving forward, and at just under ninety minutes, there isn’t a scene that feels unnecessary—the film gives us the exact amount of information needed and nothing more. The performances, for the most part, are good. Arnold Reyes’s delivery is both stone-faced and expressive. He doesn’t give us a lot, but we can see that the gears are always moving in his head, trying to figure some way out of his predicament. Ella Guevara is also effective as Elvie, having to go through the emotional ups and downs of her character. The final choice Elvie makes near the end shows that Guevara has the potential to go to some dark places.
Graceland is worth recommending as an examination of a character whose moral compass has been realigned. Poverty, illness, and desperation feed his actions, and while the decisions he makes are questionable, they are understandable. I wasn’t completely sold on how everything lined up overall, but the issues the film raises are worth the viewing. I hope this ends up leading toward more Filipino work making a presence globally. Because as this film proves, it is a country with interesting stories to tell.
Final Grade: B