Not all proficient and artful filmmakers are stamped out of a university or college; some have developed their skills as they climb the industry ladder one rung at a time. For Director Ron Morales’ sophomore effort, his years as key grip in large-scale Hollywood productions have been a tremendous help to Graceland’s gritty depiction of political corruption, hypocrisy, and conspiracy through a strict narrative composition of suspense.

Graceland depicts the complex underworld of government corruption, child exploitation, and black market capitalism in the Philippines. The film shows a dilapidated urban Filipino locale using dark palates to represent the relentless desperation of its antiheroes. Following a tight structure across less than ninety minutes, action is sparse, but the film is continuously thrilling and suspenseful thanks to a persistent supply of lies and paranoia. 

The film follows Marlon (Arnold Reyes), a personal assistant to the populist Filipino congressman Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubuas). Marlon and Chango’s daughters are the same age and are best friends, and Marlon’s wife is ill and in need of an organ replacement. Chango has also come under fire for allegedly having purchased underage prostitutes and Marlon is let go for not keeping the situation under control. When Marlon drives the two girls home on his last day of duty, he is pulled over by a fake cop who kidnaps the two girls and asks for ransom, or so Marlon tells Chango and the authorities.

Marlon is forced to delicately balance the kidnappers’ good graces and the congressman’s affairs even after being fired; all-the-while, he must keep track of the lies he tells the authorities and even to himself. This is a balancing act that Marlon is used to; he was the one who helped the young girls victimized by Chango get home safely and be sufficiently paid off. Marlon’s revolting task is done mechanically and without remorse; and how he does such a revolting task is the real question because he has a daughter just a bit younger than Chango’s personal preference.

The plot of Graceland is certainly familiar to audiences, but the film never ventures too close to familiarity but walks a thin line, and common tropes and clichés are never on either side of that line. The line that it does walk down is that of the morality of the filmmakers and the characters in the film. Graceland includes a couple of graphic moments that are stomach-churning and questionable, and we are not just talking violence here either. After considering the necessity of said moments for some time, I have come to the conclusion that they do heighten the desperate and disparate nature and hypocrisy within the governmental ranks. It is effective in portraying exploitation and delivering it to an unsuspecting audience.

Graceland is the sophomore effort for Director Ron Morales, whose debut Santa Mesa is now on my queue. His direction is no fluke, he has worked continuously as a grip or key grip in dozens productions, and the technical experience has been beneficial to his style. If this film is any indication, Morales has a bright future ahead. Furthermore, the lead, Arnold Reyes, portrays an antihero that is in so deep into a conspiracy and a kidnapping that his desperation is sincere and captivating.

Both twisty and despairing, Graceland is only graphic in necessity, with the only indication of gratuity found in the characters who swim in corruption and hypocrisy. While a tough film to watch at certain points, it is captivating and suspenseful, delivered in a masterful package of relentless shock and awe.  While the central narrative is so dominating, the film cleverly hides its underlying political ideologies revealing themselves only until the last scene.