The Philippine thriller Graceland, from director Ron Morales, has a ruthlessness rarely attempted by its North American counterparts. There are plenty of films about desperate fathers trying to rescue their daughters from kidnappers, but the ultimate fate of the fresh-faced hostage is rarely in doubt. In Graceland, however, when hapless Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is carjacked with two 12-year-old passengers in tow, any sense that we're watching a conventional genre exercise evaporates in the wake of a sudden act of violence – a startling moment that suggests that all bets are off.
It feels as though the wheel has been rigged against Marlon from the start. His job as the driver for congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) involves turning a blind eye to his employer's vices – including a fondness for underaged prostitutes – and the boss is none too pleased when Marlon tells him that Sophia (Patricia Gayod), a schoolmate of his daughter Elvie's (Ella Guevera), has been taken by thugs demanding $2-million in exchange for her life. Marlon's real goal is recover his own daughter, taken as collateral. This means kowtowing to the kidnapper and also running interference with the police, who suspect that he might be in on the plot, and with Changho, whose willingness to co-operate ebbs and flows in accordance to his overwhelming avarice and ego.
Grace is not a virtue possessed of any of the film's characters. Leon Miguel is superbly nasty as the heavy, but the actors all land in a broad spectrum of shady behaviour. Reyes's performance is a study in anything-goes urgency, and yet not even his character is above reproach. While he is not an actively bad man, it's clear that his complicity in Changho's crimes has come back to haunt him.
The filmmaking is calibrated to heighten the sensations of grimness and despair; Sung Rae Cho's expertly dingy digital cinematography makes it look as though Manila is rotting from the inside out. The most vivid location is a sprawling garbage dump that becomes a visual metaphor for the degraded, discarded humanity on display.
The overwhelming sense of physical and moral decay could be taken for social commentary, and if Graceland has a flaw, it's that Morales gradually starts to overstate his case as the movie goes on. A terrifically uncomfortable scene set at a brothel toes the line between castigating certain characters for their ethical transgressions and indulging in its own kind of rank sensationalism. It's the sort of sequence that suggests that the filmmaker is trying to raise the stakes, but it ends up feeling like a lowdown exploitation tactic.
At the same time, he deserves credit for trying to manoeuvre his movie away from the middle ground of disposable Friday-night entertainment. He may stumble a bit, but he gets there in the end.