Mild-mannered husband and father Marlon Villar is just having one of those days. The boss is on his case. His wife is being needy. His daughter is acting up. The cops are bugging him. “Graceland” begins as a compendium of what some adults would call a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Wah wah.
If only it were that easy. His boss is sniveling, corrupt politico Manuel Chango, a man who demands that his underlings clean up his messes. Said messes usually involve underage prostitutes from the local sex-trafficking trade, some of whom don’t survive the night. Chango pays Marlon to act as his chauffeur, with the expectation that he act as garbage man for Chango’s grotesque excess. No, he doesn’t really care that Marlon’s wife is sick and bed-ridden.
Marlon eventually makes the mistake of bringing his home life into his work life. Tasked with driving Chango’s adolescent daughter to school, he also brings along his own daughter of the same age. The two are friends, sharing inside jokes and playing video games, so Marlon assumes no harm will come from a little fraternization, even if they secretly play hooky and skip out on school. After meeting them at the pick-up point, and chewing their ears off, a motorcycle cop wants to chat. It becomes clear very quickly — this is not an actual cop. It seems they know this is Chango’s ride, and that Chango’s girl is in the backseat. The cop fires a bullet point blank into the chest of Chango’s daughter, and he absconds with Elvie, Marlon’s child.
The life expectancy for employees who encounter such calamities is likely low, so Marlon panics. He hides the girl’s body, telling Chango they’ve taken both girls, an act of improvisation that obscures the fact he might as well literally be sweating bullets. Chango may be loaded, he may be very powerful, but he’s also something of a monster, having frequented the Filipino red light district in search of teens almost nightly. Writer-director Ron Morales never lets you forget, however, that this man also has a family. A disgusting human being, but a human being nonetheless, one who trusts Marlon with his version of the truth, however askew.
Marlon, ultimately, seems powerless. He gets an inside look at the proceedings, learning that the kidnappers claim to have Chango’s daughter and are seeking millions, but not without making Chango squirm first. Do they know they have the wrong girl? Do they know they have Marlon’s daughter? Marlon makes the choice to remain adamant about his version of the events, in the hopes that Chango is too distracted to discipline him or consider the possibility he is lying.
Experiences with high-octane foreign cinema suggest that “Graceland” will devolve into a series of chases and gunfights, and that Marlon will rise to the occasion and heroically save his girl. This is not that movie. Our protagonist is beat and chastised throughout the film’s runtime, impotent in the face of thugs and politicians, armed with only the hope that his daughter will return to him. Director Morales instead showcases kidnappers who want to illustrate how deep the rabbit hole of corruption goes. Again, a genre film would have Marlon siding with the kidnappers in some way, but their idealism is unsettling, violence-based and extreme in its disrespect for the inner workings of the local politics.
“Graceland” is paced like a conventional thriller, though it’s ill-prepared to shift from an all-odds-against-me thriller into a sober-headed examination of child sex-trafficking. Especially considering that the “thrills” are of the station-to-station variety, earthbound and couched in the realistic aspects of a kidnapping, while our villains are a sneering, diabolical network of double crossers and opportunists; it sometimes feels like there’s a separate movie going on at our captors’ lair. Bridging the gap between Marlon’s nerves, the kidnappers’ plotting and the reality of the local sex trafficking scene is a balancing act that this movie simply can’t manage, the house of cards spilling over as these worlds begin to collide. “Graceland” never manages to be that specifically fascinating place to visit, but rather three diverse worlds with no internal consistency to link them. Mezmerizing in fits and starts, “Graceland” doesn’t coalesce into the “important” thriller it seeks to be. [B]