Elle Fanning and Ben Foster shine in this twisty crime thriller from actor-turned-director Mélanie Laurent
April 04, 2019
In one of Galveston's revealing scenes, hitman Roy (Ben Foster) is told a bleak truth: "you're not as handsome as I remember". The statement comes from an ex-lover (Heidi Lewandowski) who hasn't seen the on-the-run criminal for more than a decade, and it's designed to wound. Uttered in a grimy crime drama that sends its characters hiding from their complicated lives in the titular Texas island city, the unflattering words also cut to the heart of this grim yet gripping film.
Nothing is quite as beautiful, peaceful or comforting as anyone hopes in Galveston. Nothing goes smoothly, happens easily, or lives up to anyone's hopes, dreams or expectations. All of the above proves true in New Orleans in 1988, when the hard-boozing, possibly terminally ill Roy is sent on a routine job by his shady boss (Beau Bridges). It remains true when the hit goes south, and when Roy rescues 19-year-old escort Rocky (Elle Fanning) in the aftermath. Following a quick stop to pick up toddler Tiffany (Anniston Price and Tinsley Price), it's still true when the trio check into a coastal motel and take stock of their difficult and dangerous situation.
The tired, troubled assassin; the young sex worker with a good heart and a bad past; the scenic hideout that can't solve a world of problems: like much of Galveston's recognisable plot, all of these elements have long been noir and crime tropes. But again, nothing is exactly as it seems in this movie — be it memories, supposedly easy gigs or genre staples. In her fourth stint behind the lens and in her English-language directorial debut, actor-turned-filmmaker Mélanie Laurent crafts a film out of familiar parts. Given that the script was written by True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto (under a pseudonym, and based on his own novel as well), that really does prove the case. And yet, while it's hardly overflowing with surprises, Galveston still feels like its own distinctive creation.
Maybe it's the narrative, which refuses to completely stick to the standard formula, hewing close but happily branching out in interesting directions. Maybe it's the dynamic between Roy and Rocky, which avoids the most obvious, highly cliched path and feels all the more real and resonant for it. Or, perhaps it's the darkness that infuses every second, even when the movie's main players are enjoying their sunny surroundings or daring to believe that something could change. Roy's conversation with his ex-girlfriend proves relevant again in encapsulating the film's permanent brooding mood — when he tells her that he's dying, her casual response is "aren't we all?".
Definitely having an impact are Foster and Fanning, two consistently impressive talents who add to their stellar resumes. The more that Galveston's running time ticks by, the more the film becomes a two-handed character study, with its leads shouldering their heavy burdens with ease. Perhaps that's another reason that the movie never becomes the run-of-the-mill flick it could've been: its protagonists might seem thin on paper, but these struggling lost souls are teeming with complexity on screen. The quiet sorrow that Foster exuded in Leave No Trace also infects his work here, and the inner pluck that made Fanning such a highlight in The Neon Demon is evident as well. But neither actor could be accused of retracing their own footsteps, and Laurent certainly doesn't ask them to.
Instead, Galveston serves up layers — layered performances, layer upon layer of gloomy themes for its characters to wade through, and a layered approach to its visuals. As she demonstrated in one of her earlier filmmaking gigs, the teen-focused French drama Breathe, Laurent is a skilled director who always finds the perfect approach for each scene. Sometimes she lets the camera hang back, giving Foster and Fanning space to bounce off each other. Sometimes she peers intimately, whether the film is cosying up as Roy, Rocky and Tiffany form a makeshift family, or getting almost uncomfortably close when Roy and Rocky share their life's traumas. Often, this deceptively affecting picture says more with less, including in its climactic moments. If only all seemingly by-the-book crime flicks could do the same.