Shot on location in Manila, Ron Morales’ hostage thriller Graceland is a fluorescent-lit tour of the city’s underbelly, from dank dockside encampments to karaoke clubs that double as brothels; key scenes unfold in an actual landfill. We see schoolgirls cutting class to shoplift, payola cops bludgeoning prisoners, and family men mixed up not only in a child prostitution ring, but human-organ trafficking. Virtually no avenue of depravity is uncharted, and a disclaimer about the film’s disturbing sexual content is in order – way-underage nudity is portrayed (though the actresses are of legal age) along with a whiff of incest. This is not a movie to see on a first date or with your family, but please do go see it, because Morales has pulled off something remarkable – a fast-paced, tough, and twisty film that confronts real social problems.
A culture of trickle-down corruption reigns in Manila. From the start, every character is in hock to somebody else. Congressman Changho (Cobarrubias) needs his wife’s money to stifle statutory rape charges against him. His driver, Marlon (Reyes), has an ailing wife in the hospital; he’s not happy about abetting Changho’s predilection for barely pubescent girls, but the medical bills are piling up. Changho and Marlon both have 12-year-old daughters – Sophia (Gayod) and Elvie (Guevara), respectively – and the two girls are friends despite their parents’ disapproval. Upper-class Sophia gives the less-fortunate Elvie a cellphone and bosses her around.
Driving Sophia and Elvie home from their schools, Marlon gets carjacked by Visel (Miguel), who plans to abduct Sophia. But the kidnapper gets the girls confused, which sets in motion Marlon’s desperate scramble to appease Visel while appearing to cooperate with the police. Detective Ramos (De La Paz) thinks Marlon’s story is too convenient – he was the only witness to the crime, and now he’s the one the kidnappers want to hand off his boss’ two million pesos. Didn’t he have a falling out with Changho earlier that day? Marlon keeps following orders, but Visel raises the ransom at every turn.
In his sophomore film, the Filipino writer/director displays a sharp eye for composition borne of experience: He studied photojournalism before attending film school, then racked up extensive credits as a grip on major movies like Michael Clayton, The Departed, and Spider-Man 3. The writing is also solid, plotted to such a granular degree that scarcely any stretches or logical leaps can be found. Yet, as Morales ratchets up the stakes, rigidity sets in. The climax is a mess of expository answers that undermine the actors’ tightly coiled performances and robs them of their emotional mystery. What’s the take-home lesson of this parable? As a grinning stranger warns, “karma bites back fast.” Is that it? Morales’ brand of cosmic justice is decidedly cruel. Graceland is terrific entertainment, but I can’t decide if it’s a cautionary tale, an exercise in moral relativism, or an exploitation film. There’s the final conundrum.