Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Director: Ron Morales
Stars: Arnold Reyes, Dido Dela Paz, Ella Guevarra, Menggie Cobarubbias
Rating: R
Running time: 84 minutes
Score: 8/10

Filipino writer/director Ron Morales clearly doesn’t like to pussyfoot around. In the lean, 84-minute, and vigorously breathless thriller Graceland, the filmmaker quickly presents his case, raises the stakes to gargantuan heights, and roars through a plethora of shocks, dangerously concealed secrets, and thick intensity so to-the-point that you’d think he’s got a bus to catch.

It's a good thing that he’s in such a hurry, too, because Graceland is a harrowing journey alongside a very sympathetic protagonist that remains dour even when it’s veering into optimistic narrative directions. But then again, it’s difficult to feel all warm and fuzzy when it’s been less than an hour since you’ve seen an innocent little girl’s brains get blown all over a car’s backseat window.

That’s the horrific image that pushes Graceland into its central conflict with a paralyzing urgency. The body count rises after Marlon Villar (the excellent Arnold Reyes) gets pulled over by what’s supposed to be fuzz while his young daughter and her schoolmate friend ride along with him. He’s the chauffeur/errand boy for dirty politician Manuel Chango and his seed’s gal-pal is his boss’ own daughter; her killers, the ones who’ve ambushed Marlon’s car and fast-tracked his life into an earthbound Hell, have a score to settle with Mr. Chango, and before Marlon can find out what exactly that beef is, he’s knocked out cold and daddy’s little girl gets kidnapped.

And that all happens within the film’s first 15 minutes, leaving another 70 for Morales to progressively darken matters even further. Adding glimpses of brightness to all the ethical decimation is Graceland’s headliner Reyes’, a fascinating on-screen presence whose vulnerable and sturdy performance embodies the steadily altering dimensions of a kind-hearted, hard-working man stricken with both guilt over his family’s current nightmare and the helplessness associated with being at the mercy of homicidal criminals and a child-molesting authority figure. Directing comfortably in front of such an able performer, Morales never wavers from Graceland’s core dilemma, that of rescuing the kid by any means necessary; the unpredictability and sheer fearlessness of how he gets from Marlon’s tragic starting point and hardly any less catastrophic resolution is what powers the film into superiority.

In addition to the aforementioned underage victim’s slaying, in all of its naturally staged and gruesomely punctuated horror, Graceland delves into extremely uncomfortable realms of pornography, none of which shows any in-out/in-out yet still easily induces displeasure. Credit much of that effect to Morales’ handheld camerawork, an up close and personal approach to visualization designed to make the violence (gunshots captured within an arm’s reach) and moral repugnancies (i.e., a sequence set inside an underground sex slave operation’s headquarters full of high-school-aged “workers”) bleakly intimate, a mission that’s very effectively accomplished.

When Graceland’s haunting final message surfaces, the visceral realization that a grown-up’s darkness inevitably begets the same sullied godliness in the sinner’s nearest and dearest loved ones caps off the preceding 80 minutes’ worth of gut- and chest-punches by topping the viewer’s heart with a figurative ice-pack. It’s a coldness worth braving, though.

Graceland begins its VOD/iTunes run today, before opening in limited theaters April 26, via Drafthouse Films.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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