During an A.V. Club interview after Graceland premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, writer-director Ron Morales admitted he wrote the screenplay having never seen or heard of High And Low: “Then I saw it after the first draft, and I was like, ‘Dammit. Everyone’s going to be like, “This is such a Akira Kurosawa knockoff.”’” But while Graceland shares some significant elements with High And Low, it’s so tied to its time and place in the modern Philippines, and so powerfully pinioned on one central performance, that it rapidly finds its own solid cinematic ground.
Arnold Reyes stars as a working-class chauffeur and gofer to a powerful, corrupt Philippine congressman (Menggie Cobarrubias) who frequently hires teenage prostitutes; afterward, Reyes dutifully cleans them up, pays them off, and drives them home. He isn’t comfortable with the work, but he seems inured—he has his own teenage daughter (Ella Guevara) to support, and a desperately sick wife whose expensive health care trumps all his moral concerns. Then kidnappers mistake Guevara for Cobarrubias’ daughter (Patricia Ona Gayond) and take her hostage, threatening to kill her if Reyes can’t persuade his boss to pay the hefty ransom. Unlike chauffeur Yutaka Sada in High And Low, Reyes knows there’s no point in calling on his boss’ sense of honor or obligation. Instead, strong-armed by the kidnappers, he pretends they’re holding Gayond, and assists them in pressuring Cobarrubias.
There are many more wrinkles complicating matters: Morales is downright fiendish in adding little twists of the knife that raise the tension and make Reyes’ situation harder to navigate. The script doesn’t waste a word as it brings every seemingly casual detail from its setup into tightening the noose around Reyes, while keeping the characters’ relationships telegraphic but nuanced. In particular, the class and power differences between Reyes, Cobarrubias, and the latter’s bribed or biddable entourage repeatedly come into play, but Morales often lets the actors communicate the inequalities through tone and expression rather than spelling them out. And he’s even-handed in his judgment. Suffering eventually brings out the best in Cobarrubias, making him more sympathetic, but it brings out the worst in Reyes. By the end, no one is left uncompromised.
None of this could work without a stellar performance from Reyes, who anchors the film with distress and panic, but also with basic humanity. On paper, it sounds hard to empathize with someone actively involved in helping his rich, contemptuous politico boss cover up the systematic molestation of 14-year-olds, but Reyes makes his character’s desperation so palpable that it’s easy to understand his choices. And much of Morales’ point in Graceland is about social pressure and inevitable consequences. In this story, even the pettiest theft has a terrible price, so it’s only natural that systemic corruption entraps and poisons everyone within the system. It’s a dark, grim, suffocating story that only missteps by overplaying its hand, making the larger message about prostitution increasingly overt. Morales’ morality tale is at its best when it keeps the focus tight, and leaves it to audiences to consider how this film might reflect a bigger picture.