Mark Reviews Movies

Graceland

GRACELAND

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ron Morales

Cast: Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, Dido de la Paz, Leon Miguel, Ella Guevara, Marife Necesito, Patricia Ona Gayod

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 4/26/13 (limited); 5/3/13 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 3, 2013

Just about every person in Graceland is corrupt to one degree or another. A politician rapes children he obtains from a prostitution ring. The cops take the politician's bribe so he's not arrested. The people trying to force the politician to take responsibility for his reprehensible actions are kidnappers and murderers. Even our protagonist, who's caught up that kidnapping plot, is only an innocent man by comparison. He is the politician's driver and a man who knows about his boss' crimes, even going so far as to help him—keeping his mouth shut and driving the victims to their homes before trying to give them his boss' money for their silence.

The film, written and directed by Ron Morales, might appear to be an enraged indictment of the crooked dealings of its locale on a cursory analysis of its setup. While the metropolitan region of the Philippines' capital city of Manila and its specific type of corruption may be the framework, Graceland is more concerned with the moral compromises of individuals than the greater failures of society. After all, if we don't understand where the breaks in the social contract occur, how is it possible to see the bigger picture?

Morales' bigger picture is not an angry examination of these characters and the various messes in which they find themselves (There is plenty of anger to be had at some of what happens here) but a mournful one. For instance, the inciting incident of the plot leads to a sudden murder. A few times throughout the film, the victim's cell phone rings—a peppy pop song. The memory of that senseless act of violence comes crashing down upon us for a brief moment, and all of the madness that has resulted just seems so trivial—the disregard for humanity so infuriating.

The protagonist is Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), a perfectly ordinary man who's raising his daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) on his own while his wife (Angeli Bayani) is in the hospital awaiting an organ transplant.  He's the chauffeur of a popular congressman named Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) and his family, and the first time we meet the two men, Marlon has arrived at a hotel room where Changho insists his driver takes a teenage girl lying naked on the bed wherever she wants to go and makes sure she takes the congressman's money. He brings the girl home, and her grandmother says she knows who did this.

Soon after, the news reports on allegations that Changho had sex with the girl, and the congressman fires Marlon as a result. While driving Elvie and Changho's daughter (Patricia Ona Gayod) home from school, a man pretending to be a cop stops the car, pulls out a gun, and forces Marlon to drive to a garbage dump. The man takes Elvie and orders Marlon to convince his boss that the kidnappers also have Changho's daughter even though they do not.

The lie is the only way for Marlon to get back his daughter. He does not have the money for the ransom, but Changho does (At least in theory he does). Changho and Ramos (Dido de la Paz), the detective on the case and one the congressman bribed to keep from being charged for his illegal actions, suspect Marlon (with good reason, given the circumstances immediately before the abduction and that they have no real proof except his word), and he has to keep them from realizing that he's in contact with the kidnappers.

This is a thriller but only in form. The tension does not come from chases and standoffs (Those elements do exist here); instead it's in how far these people are willing to go (and, in one notable case that we don't realize until near the finale, have already gone) in doing wrong to achieve what they think is right. We don't sympathize with these characters. They are too far-gone down the path of reprehensible deeds for that, but Morales ensures that we at least understand them and their reasons.

Even the head kidnapper, a stoic man named Visel (Leon Miguel), has a justifiable cause to hold a grudge against Changho, and though his plan is inexcusable, it's perpetrated in the face of a system that allows a man like Changho to act with impunity. In the process of toying with Changho, he's the only person who manages to do any good when he sends the politician and Marlon to a brothel to try to free some underage girls. The detective is good at his work when he actually does it, but had he or someone in a position akin to his done something to bring Changho to justice, none of this would be happening. We'd like to wholeheartedly sympathize with Marlon (Reyes' portrayal of a man completely overwhelmed by the imbroglio in which he's involved does elicit quite a bit of sympathy, though), but he's indirectly part of that system—a man who lets evil roam free while keeping silent for a paycheck.

No one is blameless of helping to create and no one escapes this morass of injustice. Some of Graceland is difficult to handle (The material involving child prostitution especially), but it's because Morales refuses to sensationalize this material. Even the final, subdued twist of the knife—a sign that even after enduring so much turmoil and causing so much devastation because of a reckless decision—isn't ironic but melancholy. The tragedy here is that a character doesn't have the luxury of learning from his mistakes.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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