Ron Morales’ directing debut, Graceland, is not a documentary about The King’s Tennessean palatial estate. No, instead it is more like the Presley tune “In the Ghetto,” as this is a tale of moral decay in the poverty-stricken slums of Manila. The set-up to the central conflict is an attention getter, and it will grab hold of you and won’t let go for eighty minutes.
Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is the chauffeur for Manuel Chango, a prominent, albeit wealthy and corrupt, congressman in the midst of re-election. Marlon also performs other duties for Chango that won’t appear on a resume. Like acting as a clean-up man. But when his latest clean-up job becomes the subject of much conversation in the local paper, Marlon sees himself out of a job. His last act is transporting the congressman’s daughter to and from school. Only the return home trip involves a carjacking by kidnappers hoping to collect a huge ransom by taking the congressman’s daughter. To show their seriousness one of the kidnappers kills Marlon’s daughter, right in front of him.
Trouble is, they’ve killed the wrong girl and taken his daughter for ransom. To correct the mistake, Marlon becomes a pawn for the kidnappers, acting as a go-between. To ensure that his daughter stays alive, he withholds what he knows about Chango’s daughter, and helps deliver the ransom.
With a tagline that reads “A life for every lie,” Graceland gives us a conflicted protagonist who must keep up a lie to save his own daughter from meeting the same fate. When the police get involved, and have their sights on him as a chief accomplice in the kidnapping, things get further complicated. Ron Morales, who directs from his own script, keeps the story taut, giving Marlon one set of inconveniences after another, before totally giving the audience a gut-punching finale, blind-siding them with an unexpected consequence.
It is that last shot that perfectly personifies Morales’ storytelling. Everything about Graceland is blunt and to the point. The atmosphere is icy despite the humid conditions. And the overall production, which takes us through the grit of Filipino landfills to the grime of the red light district, makes for a beautiful underbelly (thanks in large part to Sung Rae Cho’s photography). Early criticism of the thriller has Filipino audiences crying foul at how the country is being portrayed, while others support Morales’ decision to not hide this side of the Philippines from viewers.
Kidnapping thrillers are nothing new, and like romantic comedies their success depends on how well a director can tell the story. If in between points A and B he can give the story a little nuance or make it a compelling character drama, then there’s a chance the film can be more than just about a kidnapping. Graceland is such a film.
Arnold Reyes’ character Marlon is written as a loving father put into a life-or-death situation. However, he has an intriguing arc that, by the time it ends, leaves the viewer to ponder and contemplate questions about risks and loyalty, with regards to employer and family.
Borrowing from numerous sources, Graceland owes the bulk of its story to Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, a 1963 kidnapping drama also revolving around a chauffeur’s child who is held for ransom and the executive that becomes a victim of extortion. But Morales’ film also has a subplot that sees Chango’s depravity come into play. During the episode, the thriller’s momentum switches from chase suspense to something more stomach churning.
Unfortunately after this event Graceland becomes a little clumsy in its third act. The director includes an unnecessary flashback sequence from an alternate perspective that seems too much like spoon-feeding the audience exposition to make sure everyone’s up to speed. That’s a little insulting, but seems necessary in this day of ADHD viewers and needing most, if not all, the facts. If anything the sequence’s inclusion shows that Ron Morales is still finding his groove as a filmmaker.
Graceland may be a genre pic, but it demonstrates that new angles can be gleaned from a kidnapping’s formulaic nature (the act itself, the ransom demand and the payoff). The film, like Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, has a relevancy to what is occurring in today’s climate, where kidnapping has become much more organized in countries around the world. At a slim 84 minutes, Graceland isn’t easy viewing, but its uncomfortableness should be met with many graces, praying that one is never involved in such a situation.
Director: Ron Morales
Writer: Ron Morales
Notable Cast: Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, Ella Guevara, and Dido De La Paz