A potent combo of hostage thriller and high-impact morality play, “Graceland” hardly puts a foot wrong for two-thirds of its lean running time. Though stumbling slightly in the home stretch, this yarn about the life-and-death choices facing the lowly employee of a corrupt Filipino politician reps an impressive sophomore feature by Filipino-American helmer Ron Morales (“Santa Mesa”). Having clocked plenty of mileage on the fest circuit since bowing at Tribeca, the pic is scheduled for U.S. release in 2013 by boutique distrib Drafthouse Films.
The ironic title refers to a place far removed from the world inhabited by Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), longtime driver and fix-it guy for crooked congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias). A dedicated father to tween daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) and devoted husband of gravely ill wife Lina (Angeli Bayani), Marlon escorts underage sex workers home from appointments with Changho, among other duties. It’s to the credit of Morales’ scripting and Reyes’ finely calibrated performance that Marlon instantly registers as a man who genuinely loves his family and whose conscience is deeply troubled by his association with the heinous acts of his employer.
The plot shifts into high gear when Marlon’s act of kindness toward one of Changho’s child victims backfires, and allegations about the politico’s dirty secret begin to surface in the press. Marlon is blamed and fired, and his final task for Changho and his duplicitous wife, Marcy (Marife Necesito), is to collect their daughter, Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayod), from school. En route to Changho’s fancy mansion with Sophia and Elvie on board, Marlon is pulled over by a fake cop, long-haired Visel (Leon Miguel), leading to a truly shocking moment of violence.
The kidnapper presents Marlon with a diabolical proposition: He must convince Changho and the cops to take any steps necessary to ensure Visel receives a $50,000 ransom and makes a clean getaway. Marlon’s most pressing immediate concern is proving to Ramos (Dido De La Paz), a hard-nosed cop on Changho’s payroll, that he wasn’t in on the deal from the start.
With precision timing and internal logic that never slips up for a moment, Morales’ devilishly clever screenplay ramps up suspense and puts devastating emotional pressure on Marlon and Changho at every turn. A memorable villain who wants his pound of psychological flesh as badly as he wants the cash, Visel at one point orders Marlon and Changho to visit a brothel and make confessions about their dealings with underage girls, while police and a sickened Marcy listen in on the wiretaps both men are wearing.
It comes as a surprise and something of a let-down at the 60-minute mark when the landscape is dramatically altered by a major revelation. While some of the sting goes out of the movie’s hitherto well-executed crime-thriller mechanics, the resolution and aftermath of the hostage crisis still pack a huge emotional wallop.
The Manila-shot U.S. production sports a charismatic central perf by in-demand local star Reyes, and rock-solid turns by vets Cobarrubias and De La Paz. Lensing by feature debutant d.p. Sung Rae Cho is on the money with clean, smoothly shot images around Changho’s comfortable house, contrasting with a pumped-up color palette and well-controlled handheld photography in the seedy side of town. Eclectic, effective score by father-son team Steven and Adam Schoenberg is dominated by punchy electronic rhythms.