Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
"Room 114. Yes, sir", says the driver to the voice on the phone. "When she wakes up, take her wherever she wants to go", says the middle-aged man in the room. "Here, take this for the overtime", he says, handing the driver cash. Inside the bedroom lies an unconscious, naked young woman. The driver covers her with a comforter then sits at the edge of the bed, his head clasped in his hands.
The driver is Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), a mid-thirtysomething family man with a young daughter and a sick wife. It's only in the next scene in his car that we realize he isn't transporting a young woman at all, but a young teen. The older man is Marlon's boss, Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) a congressman from a well-connected family.
Soon after that night, the girl's mother goes public and scandal begins to swirl around the congressman. Usually these matters are dealt with in private with money. Not this time. Changho then relieves Marlon of his duties, but hands him 3 months worth of severance. Does he blame Marlon for not being able to smooth things over with that girl's family? Or, is it that he needs Marlon out of the picture in order to protect himself from the press and the police seeking out his driver for questioning?
That's the opening of "Graceland", a superior thriller out of the Philippines directed with assurance and energy by Ron Morales. What makes it so effective as a thriller is that it grows out of the kind of character observations we see in the film's first 10 minutes, which study that great distance between masters and servants. We think we know our rights from our wrongs until they get murkier as the story gradually reveals moral complexities involving all of its major players.
**It's impossible to continue without revealing major spoilers, so quit reading right here if you plan on seeing this.**
I haven't even mentioned the catalyst for this being a thriller--a brutal kidnapping that involves both the congressman's and Marlon's daughters--because it is layered in details that evolve by the end of the film. See, Marlon drives both girls to school every morning. On the day he's fired, the girls have decided to play hooky. Marlon catches them but here's the thing: why does he want his daughter to walk home and only for the congressman's daughter to get in his car? Does Marlon understand what's coming? How deeply is he implicated? When teachers at a school across the way notice Marlon disciplining his girl, he rushes her into the car and they take off.
In the very next scene, a cop (or is he only dressed as a cop?) pulls Marlon and the girls over and at gunpoint has Marlon drive to a mostly-abandoned dump site nearby where he proceeds to shoot one of the girls dead. The cop understands who Marlon is and who his boss is. It appears the shooter thinks he has killed Marlon's daughter and is taking the rich girl for ransom.
From that point we are shown the process by which both the kidnappers and the wealthy family use Marlon to communicate with each other, causing a tense balancing act that sees Marlon having to bring trustworthiness to a negotiation filled with mistrust. The kidnappers don't trust Changho and only wish to deal thru Marlon, while Changho's side isn't sure they should trust Marlon.
From the outset of the negotiation, I perceived Marlon to be our hero, though it is just as plausible that the kidnappers only want to connect with Marlon because he's in on it. Or, is it that he's benefiting from the kidnapping but not really as implicated as we think he is? Is he a just a go-between or is he playing both sides? I was never totally sure, except that he knows the money he could make would help pay for his wife's operation.
This movie lives and breathes with our connection to Marlon, whose character grows ever more complicated in the way he navigates between two worlds he is not by nature a part of: the well-to-do and the underground crime syndicate. That is not to say Marlon doesn't understand the values of the street, and it's fascinating watching what he does and says and what he plays close to his chest. He effectively lies to Changho's people about the girls because if they knew that their girl was dead, would they try as hard or pay money for his daughter?
Try not to sneeze or blink or cough in the last 10 minutes of the movie. Implications are made and ulterior motives are revealed from one shot to the next, but the answers don't come easy. Like, why would that hard-ass cop let Marlon's daughter hear his testimony? Is he trying to bury this case? And what are that cop's intentions anyway? What happened when he left his vehicle and went towards the sound of gun shots between the kidnappers?
"Graceland" plays fair though. It gives you just enough and challenges you to piece together the rest. Besides, it exists on a level of implications and pure suspense anyway, not easy answers.