At initial glance a movie like Galveston feels like it has the makings of an indie classic. A story adapted from Nic Pizzolatto’s first novel. Melanie Laurent’s English-language directorial debut (her fourth overall). Central performances from Elle Fanning and Ben Foster. Somewhere along the lines though, things fall out of step. The movie lulls too long or falls into the trappings of predictability. And yet while it doesn’t blaze a new path, here is the kind of feature that’s easy to respect and like, more than fully recommend.
When we first meet career criminal Roy (Ben Foster), he’s in the middle of a terrible day. One glance at a chest x-ray and he knows his prognosis, busting out of the room before his doctor can say a word. Things get worse when he arrives at his job as an enforcer for a local “businessman” (Beau Bridges), who has taken up with his ex. Adding insult to injury, his job that night ends up being a set-up, with the intent of leaving him dead. Nothing goes according plan. In an act of charity, he decides it to bring the young prostitute tied up in the middle of the room along. After stopping to fetch Rocky’s sister, they set off for the coast, changing cars to cover their tracks. They constantly talk of staying one step of henchmen, though strangely none seem active in their pursuit.
It’s here in the middle section that things slow down, but also become less interesting. Checking into a fleabag motel just outside Galveston, the film starts to follow the same ground as 2017’s Florida Project. Laurent seems to feel this pit stop goes on for too long as well, having characters making increasingly stupid decisions to kick the third act into gear.
The most successful parts of Galveston come in an investment in small, quieter moments. An afternoon at the beach signalling one of the few instances where the trio is able to smile. Back at the motel, the guests band together in an impromptu cookout. Their sense of community is strong and there’s a sense these people are all on the run from troubled past.
Violence undercuts a lot of the lulls and when it hits, it does so with great force. Often when up-and-coming directors are thrust into the driver’s seat of a big budget action film, there’s question as to whether or not they may have the chops to cut it. Laurent could easily silence those detractors by showing them this film. What’s contained here isn’t your usual fare though. There aren’t any traditional set-pieces, but jolts. A rousing long take in the film’s climax is a highlight, in both use of landscape and the tension that builds. The acts here, thought aren’t so easily shaken off. If someone gets bludgeoned, not only do they feel the weight of the pain, it’s etched (sometimes horrifically) across their face.
The characterizations of Rocky and Roy leave a lot to be desired, but are never by fault of the actors inhabiting the roles. For Fanning it’s yet another feather in her cap, adding to an already impressive body of work that’s sure to extend for decades to come. She slides into the sweet and naive part with minimal effort. One can easily understand why Laurent has made mention that Fanning was her first and only choice for the part. It’s Ben Foster though, who cements himself as a consummate actor of note, with his understated, but impactful role.
For some reason, Foster’s name is never uttered when discussing actors of his generation. As if he’s seemingly lost in the shuffle, losing out to flashier names. His Roy is a man of grumbles and mumbles. Letting his impending death guide him, he instinctively moves to protect Rocky and her sister. Never is there the sense he’s doing this out of absolution, more that an internal compass won’t let him abandon these girls.
There’s plenty to like, but almost just as much that disconnects from the audience. Almost as if too much of an adherence to the source material mutes Laurent’s voice, which tries as it might to push through all the noise. She has a strong eye for framing long scenes, even if they hang for too long. That’s not always a detriment. Often it comes across as someone securing their footing. It distinctly has the feel of a European filmmaker directing an American story. Make sure to watch out for her next feature, as it’s likely to be a film everyone will talk about. Sometimes to takes a mediocre film to herald the arrival of a new director of note. If that’s the legacy to come for Galveston, that’s not a bad way to be remembered.