The title Graceland should be taken as ironic, as there are very few saving graces among the characters that inhabit this dark story. Set in the slums of the Philippines, where the poor do the unthinkable out of desperation and the rich do the despicable out of privilege, it’s established early on that a happy ending is not an option. In his second feature Ron Morales has crafted an engrossing tale of corruption, revenge and class warfare.
Our protagonist is Marlon, a long time driver for congressman Manual Chango. Opening scenes show Marlon forced to assist the congressman in his dirty deeds involving a taste for underage girls. Chango’s face is on the television and billboards, so it’s Marlon who must show his face when returning the child to her grandmother, an occupational hazard Marlon has become accustomed to. Despite getting dropped off at different schools, the class difference has not yet occurred to the respective daughters of the driver and the congressman, as they are seen playing and getting along swimmingly. When a kidnapping goes awry, Marlon’s daughter is taken for the congressman’s and the targeted child is left dead. To get his daughter back, Marlon must lie to the authorities and the congressman by saying that both girls were taken. As the only witness, suspicions are cast on his own motives and involvement.
The set-up is similar to Kurosawa’s classic kidnapping caper High and Low (based on Ed Mcbain’s noir novel King’s Ransom). In that story, the lowly driver’s son is mistaken for that of a wealthy executive, played brilliantly by Tishiro Mifune, whose child is left unharmed. The wealthy man struggles with the choice to pay a ransom for his employee’s son and redeems himself in doing so. As is established in Graceland’s opening scenes, congressman Chango is beyond redemption and is never even given that option. He must be manipulated by Marlon and the kidnappers into helping them. Like High and Low, this is a story about bringing down the mighty who believe themselves invincible.
The yarn is wound extremely tight until the final minutes where a minor twist is presented in a confusing series of cross cuts presenting information we already know for the most part. This aside, Graceland maintains suspense for the entirety of its 75 minute running time. Much of the film’s success relies on the performance of the conflicted Marlon played by Arnold Reyes who conveys his character’s suffering with all the believability you could ask from an actor without actually kidnapping his daughter.
With the levels of despair and immorality depicted, Morales manages to kidnap all predictability. Not for the light-hearted, Graceland is a thriller that shocks in ways no Hollywood film could ever get away with.