Graceland is a nasty, frayed nerve of a film. Writer-director Ron Morales conjures an atmosphere of unpredictable live-wire dread throughout, which is an impressive accomplishment in these media-savvy days in which everyone has seemingly seen everything. The plot isn’t unusual, but Morales strips it down to its primal essence. We know early on that we’re watching some kind of tragedy that won’t end well, so the suspense isn’t really derived from anticipating the film’s resolution. Morales, instead, holds us in a state of appalled empathy as characters desperately destroy one another.
The hero, of sorts, is Marlon (Arnold Reyes), a driver for Filipino politician Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias). Quick, efficient expository moments establish how the employee and employer’s lives broadly contrast. Marlon’s wife is nearly on her deathbed, in need of an organ transplant that’s unlikely due to his limited sphere of social influence. His daughter, Elvie (Ella Guevara), is a nice girl who’s reaching a tricky and painful age in which she realizes the explicit differences between the working class, with which she and her family clearly belong, and the wealthy movers and shakers that define the world of her friend Sophia (Patricia Gayod), who happens to be Changho’s daughter. Marlon’s in a universally precarious situation born of near-poverty: One small inconvenience could unravel the existence he’s established for himself and his family, much less the full-blown calamity that erupts early one morning.
Changho, on the other hand, wears his considerable comfort with a studied indifference that understandably infuriates people like Marlon. The congressman has an unforgivable proclivity for young girls, whom he leaves naked and drugged, like a sack of dirty laundry, for Marlon to scoop up and drop off (Morales isn’t sentimental about his hero’s complicity). Changho likes his power, his liquor, his drugs, and his sex, and as long as he has the money to occasionally bribe the police there’s no reason for him to expect a life that doesn’t present him with any pleasure he wants the moment he wants it.
Graceland soon reveals itself to be another angry, despairing kidnapping drama with sociopolitical concerns, and it’s a measure of Morales’s ambitions that Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece High and Low is his most obvious influence (that film’s famous train sequence is even reprised here in an ingeniously low-budget fashion). Morales displays a feverish talent for asserting subtext through action at a breakneck pace. We’re allowed to see for ourselves the world that defines these characters, where the proletariat is endlessly manipulated by governing bodies for reasons of self-preservation and gratification. The only truly sympathetic characters are either brutally murdered or severely morally compromised or disillusioned. This film stings.