Cinema isn't always meant to simply entertain its audiences, but sometimes it asks a series of questions for us to consider. Depending upon how you answer these inquiries, it will affect your moviegoing experience accordingly. Ron Morales' Graceland asks us to put ourselves in the main character's position. What would you do if you were in this situation? How would you behave under such terrible circumstances? When a filmmaker successfully places viewers in this position, it can create a substantial amount of tension that wouldn't be there otherwise. This technique of storytelling allows the "protagonist" and the audience to become one through the film's duration. However, this comes across as being only one of the three perspectives in this picture. The other two don't pose the same questions, but they all have the common theme of morality, and the lack thereof.
Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) is a driver for Congressman Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias). Marlon spends his days running errands for his boss' family. On one fateful day, he's asked to drive Manuel's daughter, Sophia Chango (Patricia Ona Gayond), to school along with his own daughter, Elvie Villar (Ella Guevara). The two girls decide to skip school and go shopping, but Marlon discovers what happened when he arrives to pick them up. His life is changed forever when his daughter is kidnapped by a couple dangerous men. Visel (Leon Miguel) is one of the kidnappers, who provides Marlon with instructions. If he doesn't follow everything he says, then Elvie will be killed. Meanwhile, Manuel gets Detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz) involved, who believes that Marlon is somehow involved in the kidnapping.
Viewers don't have to sit through a lot of buildup, since Morales' screenplay quickly jumps into the material. There is only a small amount of groundwork, which is utilized to introduce the characters and create plenty of foreshadowing. The theme of morality appears as soon as the film begins. We spend a small amount of time following Elvie and Sophia when they decide to skip school. These girls have different morals, which is expressed through the values they have developed from their parents. After the kidnapping occurs, we're locked within Marlon's point-of-view. We slowly learn more about Congressman Manuel Chango and his scandal, but the story remains with the driver. He's willing to do whatever it takes to get his daughter back. However, a series of events cause him to unravel into a man he never knew he could become. Marlon finds himself stuck in a web of lies, which only continues to expand. Regardless of some careless mistakes, the audience will be rooting for him to safely retrieve his daughter.
While this is the primary story we follow, there are a couple sub-plots. The first features Congressman Manuel Chango with his repulsive issue, which will surely make audiences uncomfortable. The second involves the kidnappers, since they have motivations of their own. There isn't a single character who can be classified as either good or evil. They all fit within the gray area, which makes this picture feel more genuine. Neither of these story lines are explored very much, which is disappointing. The basic concept of the picture is similar to Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, but writer/director Ron Morales barely scratches the surface of the most original aspects of Graceland. There are a couple scenes that might disgust mainstream audiences, but it doesn't push the envelope as much as it should. We only receive hints of these sequences, which will leave audiences craving the more original concepts. Once the credits are done rolling, you'll wish that these missing pieces of the puzzle could be found.
Graceland thrives with its high level of tension. Morales truly makes us care about Marlon, which causes us to sit at the edge of our seat throughout the film's running time. Since kidnappings actually happen, this doesn't feel too far from reality. The screenplay feeds on this in order to instill suspense into its audiences. There isn't a single dull moment to be had, as it never takes a moment to relax. Whether we're following the emotional toll these events are taking on Marlon or watching him interact with the kidnappers, there is always something happening. Once you reach the ending, Morales doesn't shy from hitting us over the head with reality. This blunt nature is rare to find in cinema, which makes Graceland a completely different experience. Corruption and immoral behavior rarely go unpunished in this intense thriller.
The cast received a high amount of praise from film festivals, which is completely deserved. Arnold Reyes is absolutely fantastic in the role of Marlon Villar. His portrayal of a desperate man is utterly heartbreaking. He makes this thriller have more emotional power than it would have otherwise. Menggie Cobarrubias is solid as Manuel Chango. He's believable, even though his character doesn't receive very much attention. Dido De La Paz is excellent in the role of Detective Ramos. This aggressive man appears to be more obsessed with questioning Marlon than he is with finding Elvie and the kidnappers. However, he allows this story to come full circle. Ella Guevara might be young, but she displays quite a bit of promise as Elvie Villar. She's forced to endure the torture of not knowing what will happen to her next, but she displays this young girl's innocence very well. These performances greatly enhance this picture's ability to grab ahold of the audience.
There aren't any big explosions or gun fights, but writer/director Ron Morales utilizes the picture's atmosphere to create tension. Graceland has a gritty presentation, which lacks bright colors. There is quite a bit of mood lighting, which primarily speaks for the sleazy portion of the feature. There is a lot of drama incorporated through the visual aesthetics, which works in the film's favor. Morales isn't afraid to get close to Marlon, which allows the viewer to get more intimate with the character. Thrillers don't have to be loud with gun fights to create tension, since a subtle approach can sometimes be even more powerful.
What would you do if your daughter was kidnapped? Would you trust the police, or would you follow the criminals' instructions to get your child back? Writer/director Ron Morales asks these questions throughout Graceland, which truly increase the tension. This crime thriller isn't a game changer, but it's worth checking out. The main plot will surely remind audiences of Kurosawa's High and Low, but this isn't a copy by any means. Marlon's situation is heartbreaking, although we're merely teased with sub-plots. One involves Congressman Manuel Chango, while the other deals with Visel, who is one of the kidnappers. By only giving us a small taste of these characters, it leaves us feeling as if something is missing. Graceland might not be the perfect thriller, but it commands your attention. Recommended.