Directed By: Erik Matti
Written By: Erik Matti and Michiko Yamamoto
Cast: Joel Torre, Gerald Anderson, Joey Marquez, Piolo Pascual
I arrived at Fantastic Fest exhausted and hungry. In order to get from my apartment to the theater, procure badges, and make the first screening I had to wake up unreasonably early and trek across a vast and difficult terrain. Two breakfast tacos, innumerable cigarettes, and a metric ton of Coca-Cola later I was still pretty dysfunctional. Enter On The Job. I don’t have too much experience with cinema from the Philippines, but Director Erik Matti’s political thriller left me wanting to see a whole lot more. The restless camera, constant tension, and fantastic score took me from halfway asleep to 110% awake in about twenty minutes.
Someone at the festival described the film as, “the movie here that Ben Affleck is most likely to remake.” That sounds about right. On The Job is a fictional exploration of a truly shocking controversy in Philippines. Prisoners were given day passes to go out into the cities and perform murders for money. These prisoners had a perfect alibi as they were supposed to be in jail. They were also easy to manipulate given their already desperate state of affairs. This crisis ran all the way through the Filipino government. Prison officials, dirty cops, corrupt politicians, and drug runners were all involved in the scheme.
Matti’s film explores the situation from a number of perspectives. There is the older, established hit man Mario (Joel Torre), his protégé Daniel (Gerald Anderson), old school police sergeant Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez), and rising star of the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual). All four become interconnected when Mario and Daniel execute known drug runner Johnny Tiu. The two officers begin investigating independently of each other, but as the situation grows increasingly obscure they are forced to team up. Meanwhile, Mario’s desire to return to his family drives him to continue mentoring Daniel who soon becomes an independently proficient murderer.
For a movie about hitmen, there is shockingly little action in On The Job. When there is action though it is always well executed. The shootouts and chase scenes are all phenomenally choreographed, and lit in a way that conveys the darkness that covers all of the movie’s events. The lack of action is more than made up for by the production of narrative and thematic tension throughout the film, however. The camera never sits still. The longest still shot I counted was four seconds. This constantly moving camera is not some Cloverfield-esque shaky cam. It’s subtle movement that hints at the underlying instability that grips every moment of the narrative.
In the end, this movie is about corruption more than anything. It delves deep into the ways that social corruption affects individual, moral corruption and vice versa. From the evil English speaking aristocrats (a very clever move I thought) to the increasingly dire straits that confront the employed prisoners, this film asks after how far good intentions really go and at what point do the actions they engender outweigh their motivations. Fueled by a great script, excellent camera work, and some top notch performances, On The Job effectively captures the spirit of the best of the political thriller genre.