At the intersection of movie pulp and human truth, the right picture can park itself in your consciousness. Tense and anguished, the kidnapping thriller "Graceland" is one of those pictures — a real find, playing for keeps what bigger-budget payback items such as "Taken" play for conventional revenge.
This tightly coiled story is the second (after "Santa Mesa") from Filipino-American filmmaker Ron Morales. The running time of "Graceland," set among the streets, brothels and trash dumps of Morales' hometown of Manila, clocks in at 84 minutes. An astonishing amount of ground is covered in that time.
Working for a quietly despicable Manila politician (Menggie Cobarrubias) whose predilections include underage girls, chauffeur Marlon, played by Arnold Reyes, is under the gun and in a sweat from the outset. His wife, near death, requires an organ transplant. Just as we've absorbed Marlon's situation at home and on the job, everything changes for the worse: his daughter (Ella Guevara), mistaken for the politician's daughter (Marife Necesito), is abducted and held for ransom along with the intended target.
The first on-screen act of violence committed in "Graceland" takes place so suddenly, its full impact takes a second or two to register. Like the Italian director Matteo Garrone, whose crime drama "Gomorrah" operated on a similar, judicious semidocumentary wavelength in terms of style, Morales knows when to blink — to leave the worst depravity or cruelty to the imagination — and when not to.
Everyone in "Graceland" is in on some sort of fix or concealing a terrible secret. The cops, the abductors and, above all, the haunted Marlon, given tense immediacy by Reyes: The characters, weirdly dependent on one another, are all inhabitants of the same living, breathing urban organism. The compact size of "Graceland" doesn't allow for expansive character development, and some of the points Morales makes regarding the far-reaching corruption settle for cliche (and, in some roles, lack nuanced acting).
Still, I'd put money on this filmmaker's career. It's up to him and, in the great film noir tradition, to fate, whether that career leans more toward pulp than truth. There's honor and value in both, and at their points of intersection.
'Graceland' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (nudity, violence, language)
Running time: 1:24; in Tagalog and English with English subtitles.
Opens: Friday and continues through May 9 at Facets Cinematheque; also available VOD and on iTunes..