Only you know what your tolerance is for dark, grim stories that offer little hope for justice in an unjust world, little hope for hope itself, for that matter.
But “Watch List” is a bleak but riveting thriller worth girding yourself for and immersing yourself in. It’s a Filipino film directed by American Ben Rekhi (“The Ashram”) about a newly-widowed mother of three, a recovered junkie, caught up in the authoritarian slaughter of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Extra judicial killings” is one of those phrases, like “ethnic cleansing,” that tidies up a murderous horror. That’s what “Watch List” is about, the rapid descent of a half-compliant culture into off-the-books but state-sanctioned murder and “disappearances.”
A police van empties out in Quezon City’s District 120. It’s part of Operation Tokhang, which news footage shows the Filipino strong man authorizing. They’re rounding up everybody ever caught and convicted of using or selling drugs, giving them the chance to “voluntarily” surrender.
Arturo (Jess Mendoza) answers the pounding at the door, insists he’s clean and long ago did his time for his crimes. Nope. “Volunteer” to go in, because you’re on the list. “Just come with us,” (in Filipino, with English subtitles) the cops urge.
But his wife, Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) asks questions, gets mouthy. Now they want to know HER name. A quick glance at the clipboard “list” produces an officious “HERE it is.” Maria’s “Let me SEE that” falls on deaf ears.
They’re both ordered to “register” and face the perp-walk jeering of neighbors, even as the grinning cops assure them that the signing in, oaths they must take, and dancing that’s to start their latest “rehabilitation” is “nothing.”
They go home. Arturo kisses her and their three kids good night before going to work. He never comes back, gunned down in a drive-by. The cops are there within moments, but no, there were no “witnesses.” Strangely, all the CCTV cameras at the scene “were down.”
Lt. Ventura (Jake Macapagal) shrugs, says they have no leads, makes Maria sign some papers, and that’s that.
But good luck finding a job as a widow with three kids when you’ve been on the news, when everybody nearby knows you were a drug user and “once an addict, always an addict,” because the murderously corrupt government keeps telling them that.
The Catholic Church? The iconography is everywhere, but there is no priest or sanctuary that can offer Maria comfort. All that’s left for it is for her to beg for a job, as an informant, with the very people she suspects arranged the murder of her husband, and covered it up.
Ventura makes the arrangement. Alvin (Arthur Acuña) will be her handler, allegedly a “vigilante” but actually an undercover cop. She will find information, get dealers to sell to her so that they can be “caught in the act.”
Or so she thinks. Being taught to fire a pistol from the back of a motorbike tells her, and us, this is how it’s done. If you’re on the “list,” judgement has already been passed. No arrest, no trial, just execution.
Maria’s “real” motive for getting mixed up in this is to protect her kids, the oldest of whom (Micko Laurente) is already spending too much time with a drug dealing cousin (Timothy Malabot).
Can she save him and his siblings? What will she do once she knows how these “EJKs” (extra judicial killings) are meted out, who stands to gain and where the corruption really lies?
British born Italian-Filipino actress de Rossi perfectly embodies a woman with a past, but with little in that past to help her in her newly-widowed predicament. Sure, she can be of help to the cops.
“If there’s one thing I remember, it’s how to score.”
She tries to assure her confused, grieving children that their father was not a pusher, that he was “a good man.”
But the more she learns, the harder it is to hide her despair and her desperation. The same thing could happen to her that happened to Arturo, and Maria is willing to cross a lot of lines to prevent that. de Rossi never lets us see the gears turning, what Maria might be planning to do with all she learns and the terror that’s being unleashed on her country’s most vulnerable.
Director Rekhi maintains that mystery and steadily ramps up the suspense as we follow his heroine down a rabbit hole filled with vipers.
And the deeper she and we go down that “Watch List,” the more doubts we have that anybody will get out of this alive, much less with a sense that justice will be done or will even be allowed.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, drug abuse
Cast: Alessandra de Rossi, Jake Macapagal, Arthur Acuña, Jess Mendoza, Micko Laurente and Timothy Mabalot.
Credits: Directed by Ben Rekhi, script by Ben Rekhi, Rona Lean Sales. A Dark Sky/Uncork’d release.
Running time: 1:39