The value of a really good story hook can never be overstated, but it’s become fairly uncommon these days to find a film that has one. The odds decrease even more when it comes to movies with a fantastic premise and a successful execution of that idea.
Ron Morales‘ second feature, Graceland, manages to do both.
Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) is low level driver for a sordid congressman, and while he hates what the elected official does with his free time, he needs the paycheck to help raise his own daughter Elvie. He drives the congressman’s daughter to school every day and makes a habit of bringing Elvie along for the ride, but when a routine traffic stop turns into a botched kidnapping, his life is thrown into immediate turmoil. The captors have mistaken Elvie for the politician’s daughter and are now demanding a hefty ransom. The immoral congressman won’t pay if he thinks his own little girl is safe, so… what’s an honorable and desperate man to do?
The film is off and running in short order, and befitting of its 84 minute run-time the suspense and tension never really stop. Writer/director Morales offers a brief introduction to the players before throwing us into a seemingly hopeless and harrowing situation in a world that oozes sweat and immorality. Our allegiances are then challenged with a protagonist who’s not your typical hero.
The politician’s taste in women leans underage, and while he’s clearly a villain, we’re asked to take sides with Marlon who’s far from squeaky clean himself. Sure, he wouldn’t stoop so low as to sleep with one of these girls, but he knowingly transports the congressman back and forth and even delivers payment to one of the girl’s disgusted mothers after a session. An argument could be made for guilt by association, but Morales allows us precious little time to judge the man before his child is snatched away.
The script moves like a sleazy bullet train and ratchets up the tension periodically with fresh hells for Marlon to traverse. That’s not to imply this is an adrenaline-filled action/thriller along the lines of Sleepless Night or Tell No One. There are shotgun blasts of action, but much of the energy comes from dramatic revelations and events.
The film also manages to stay smart with obstacles and events falling into place as logical constructs allowing little to no opportunities for viewers to yell at Marlon for behaving stupidly. He finds himself in a really bad place and does the best he can to get out of it with his daughter’s life intact, and he’s left reaching for the best bad plan available.
The film’s runtime benefits the thriller aspect here, but it also doesn’t allow much time to really get to know anyone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the brevity eliminates any and all fat from the film, but more character time might have made things even more tragic and affecting. Also iffy, and as a fair bit of warning, the film features graphic nudity from underage prostitutes. The actresses aren’t actually underage (per the statement in the end credits), but it’s a jarring sight all the same.
Graceland is a deceptively simple thriller with a smart setup and a cruelly efficient execution. An inevitable American remake would polish away Marlon’s less appealing nature and replace the truly squalid atmosphere with something far more palatable. Don’t wait for that to happen. Take a trip to Graceland now.
The Upside: Pretty smart twist on a familiar premise; constantly engaging; short run-time helps keep things moving
The Downside: Underage nudity is unpleasant even if the actors are actually over 18 because they look a bit too convincing; may be too short
One the Side: Drafthouse Films picked up Graceland shortly after its premiere at last year’s Fantastic Fest.
Graceland is currently available on VOD and starts a limited theatrical run on Friday 4/26