I have a lot of trouble writing reviews about certain kinds of movies. It's not that I can't think of things to say or formulate some sort of general opinion. It's because the subject matter that the films deal with are very difficult to write about. Graceland is one of those movies, and this is one of those reviews.
Graceland is a film about the trafficking of child prostitutes. It's a disturbing subject matter that makes watching certain parts of the film really unpleasant to watch. That doesn't mean it's not worth watching (it is), but it means that any recommendations that I give come with a number of caveats.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the film's theatrical. Graceland is also available on VOD.]
Director: Ron Morales
Release Date: March 28, 2013 (VOD); April 26, 2013 (Theatrical)
Graceland is like a cross between Akira Kurosawa's High and Low and Taken. It's like High and Low, because it's about the accidental kidnapping of a wealthy man's driver's kid in order to hold the wealthy man for some kind of ransom, and it's like Taken, because it shows how far a father will go in order to save his family and has to do with the prostitution of young girls. That being said, the way things play out is nothing like either of those films, so don't stick to those comparisons too hard.
Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) is the driver for Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias), a congressman with a child fetish. As his driver, Marlon has helped Manuel satisfy his habit on numerous occasions, which means he is not a particularly sympathetic guy. But he does it because he has to. He needs the job, because his wife is sick in the hospital and he is otherwise unable to pay for her medical bills. He can barely pay for them as is. Marlon also has a young daughter, probably around 12 years old. Manuel does as well, and the two girls are good friends. That Manuel's tastes fall into that same age range makes the entire thing much creepier
While driving his and his boss's daughters home from school (which they had skipped to go steal things), Marlon is pulled over by a fake police officer, who forces him to drive to an empty lot before killing one child, kidnapping the other, and knocking him out cold. Marlon spends the rest of the film trying to play off the death, and pretending as though it never happened. At the same time, he is under investigation for the kidnapping of both children by the police, who Manuel hired to find the criminals. And, although he did not orchestrate the event, Marlon is no less guilty.
As the child is held hostage and everyone except Marlon is kept in the dark, the kidnappers force Manuel (who is the real target) to go to a brothel in order to confront his evils, and it creates some really intense moments. What Manuel does is beyond irredeemable, so there's no way to feel any sympathy for him, but his wife knows nothing about his exploits, so her pain is definitely felt. The way Marlon leads everyone on in his single-minded pursuit of his daughter weighs heavily on every scene.
The kidnappers themselves are interested in Manuel's humiliation rather than his money, so the ransom that they request is used for the benefit of others, but they are also bad people. Their willingness to kill children in order to achieve revenge on Manuel makes them no better than anybody else.
I feel like I'm rambling a bit, and I think that's mostly because of how difficult it is to fit the pieces together. It is clear immediately that there is no good guy. The protagonist is not some morally righteous person, and he actually becomes less so as Graceland progresses. In fact, none of the male characters are good people. All of them are evil in some small way, and most of them are evil in a big way. The women are much more sympathetic, but they're not angels either. And that's the way life works. There are shades of gray in everybody, and everybody has their own motivation, but that makes sorting them out difficult. If you're someone who complains about the completely black and white characterization found in a lot of movies, you will likely appreciate Graceland. If you need things spelled out, you will hate it.
Ever since I saw the first fully naked child onscreen, I have been asking myself if I thought she was actually as young as she looked. When I saw the second one, I was pretty sure I knew. Unless Filipino girls all look four or five years younger than they are, I'm pretty sure those were actually teens and pre-teens onscreen, and that made me feel really, really weird. Even if they were of age, that doesn't really make things much better. The whole thing is just sort of difficult to comprehend. I'm not opposed to it existing, but it's not an easy thing to wrap my head around. It's not something that movies deal with often, and certainly not in the way that Graceland does.
It makes Graceland hard to stomach, but it also makes it fascinating. It's truly an amazing film, because it gives real weight to the horrible things that it's about. It does not make light of its tough subject matter, and it keeps everything grounded. If it had been any other way, I would have torn this film to shreds. Instead, it gets the banner you see below.