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Grim, unsettling ‘Graceland’ is hard to forget

Thu., May 9, 2013

“Graceland” may devastate or puzzle you, but it is unlikely to leave you unmoved.

The noirish thriller, set in the Philippines, does some important things well: It keeps viewers rapt with shocking scenes and a suspenseful plot and pacing, and it exposes a dank, shameful layer of Philippine society.

In the film, a politician’s driver is drawn into a kidnapping that threatens his own daughter’s life, forcing him to navigate between the extortionists, his boss and the police in an effort to save her.

His choices are impossible, and no one is innocent – except, perhaps, his desperately ill wife and adolescent daughter.

With a fine, evocative turn by lead actor Arnold Reyes and sympathetic depictions by young actors who represent girls in the sex trade, the story burrows its way under your skin.

Written and directed by young filmmaker Ron Morales, “Graceland” depicts “a desperate man’s infinite moral compromises,” its distributor notes. In watching the film, you’re likely to be wrenched by each test and turn.

As its suspense builds, the film exposes inhumane practices and conditions: corruption, poverty and exploitation, sexual and otherwise.

At times “Graceland” turns melodramatic, but its unexpected twists, somber cinematography and gripping story line are worth your time.

I’d compare it favorably to Brad Pitt’s recent New Orleans-set film “Killing Them Softly,” which also tells a story of doomed souls and questionable morality against a troubling backdrop. Where “Softly” used violence to blast viewers into attention, “Graceland” uses images of a ravaged land and inhumane behavior – neon streets lined with sex workers; a monstrous dump where the criminals delight in sending their prey; young girls stripped of their clothes and dignity by those who should be protecting them.

Brief scenes of adolescent nudity may be particularly shocking to viewers, but they serve as a graphic statement about the crimes that underpin this story, and make it difficult to forget.

The film, in Tagalog with English subtitles, won the audience award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

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