Fantastic Fest: ‘Graceland’ Will Steal Your Attention (and Maybe Your Child)


Marlon Villar is a man used to doing what he is told. He doesn’t ask questions, he knows what he has to do, and for eight years he’s been doing it right. Carving a living as a driver, it is Marlon’s duty to chauffeur and clean up after Manuel Chango, a congressman with a few immoral tendencies. Graceland introduces the two men following an unsettling event that, while shocking, appears to be rather routine for the pair. They have had a professional relationship for years, one so close that Marlon is entrusted to drive Chango’s daughter to school along with his own daughter Elvie.

Villar is also a loving father, a vision not entirely embraced by Elvie, but respected nonetheless. Together they pray for Lina, Elvie’s mother, and Marlon’s wife, who suffers in a hospital awaiting an organ transplant. It is Marlon who must take care of them all, a task he accepts wholeheartedly, wearing the exhaustion on his face nearly every second he is on screen. This is Marlon’s life from sunup to sundown.

One day while driving the girls home from school, Marlon is pulled over by a police officer. The cop appears agitated and, after awhile, his validity and motives drastically shift. What began as a traffic stop turns to a kidnapping, with Elvie grabbed by mistake instead of Congressman Chango’s daughter. Marlon awakens to the nightmare with information that if he wants to see his daughter alive again, he is to relay a message to Chango. Numbly, Marlon is able to function and deliver the news. Soon, police are called in, bribes are handed out, and the city of Manilla rolls over to show its nasty underbelly.

The rest of Graceland is an intoxicating blur. Arnold Reyes conveys in Marlon a sense of frustrating, telescoping urgency. His fear, wariness, and fatigue are magnified under the sweat and grime of the city. A man against the odds, he plays through an unfair game of lies and corruption; knowing any misstep could set off a chain reaction strong enough to decimate his world.

Graceland is a tense work that moves at a jangled pace, leaving us constantly wondering who is telling the truth and just how much the characters believe in themselves. Faith and love are threaded so tightly throughout that, at times, it is easy to forget just how slyly such concepts can corrupt a person. Writer/director Ron Morales posits a thought delicately and brilliantly in titling the film as such. What devastates most is the idea of men forgoing their own beliefs on a course of destruction to uphold a notion that at the end of the day even they wouldn’t recognize. It’s a bitter feeling. Even after sleeping on it, Graceland continues to maul.

The Upside: It’s a fantastic thriller with outstanding performances that command attention.

The Downside: There are some very uncomfortable moments involving children.

On the Side: Drafthouse Films has scooped up Graceland for North American distribution.

Grade: A


Michael grew up in Arizona, raised in a maelstrom of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cronenberg. Suckling from an R rated teat well before maturity could rear its ugly face, left Michael with a void in his heart, one that could only be filled with genre cinema. Over the years he has worked in film and television, made some music and kept his eyes trained on a horizon he won't let fade. What he chases, he does not know. Though, there are two certain truths: One, if you want to get him really angry, have a discussion about Lars and the Real Girl. Two, he owns the Snake Eater trilogy on VHS.

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