Synopsis – After escaping a set up, a dying hitman returns to his hometown of Galveston where he plans his revenge.
My Take – Remember Shosanna Dreyfus from director Quentin Tarantino‘s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds? It’s quite impossible to not, considering the performance Mélanie Laurent put in. While French actress Mélanie Laurent continues to maintain a steady acting career by standing out in films like Enemy, Now You See Me and most recently, Operation Finale, along with a bunch of roles in French films, over the last decade she has also got around directing five feature films, including a documentary about climate change. With this film she aims to continue her impressive directorial streak with an English language debut, adapted from the novel by ‘True Detective‘ creator Nic Pizzolatto.
Unsurprisingly, given her talent as director, Laurent successfully manages to bring the macho essence of Pizzolatto’s text, revolving around a beach-bound road trip with a dying, low-level thug, and the prostitute he rescues during a double-cross to life, all the while toning down the ostentatious author’s flair for theatrical dialogue. The film is front to back gripping, and it’s her guiding hand that takes Pizzolatto’s narrative and makes pure, cinematic revelry. The pacing is steady, and the dialogue is well-written. The characters are developed well, too, making the story even more compelling.
Although they are both rather archetypal, the two lead characters are likable and sympathetic, even without some of the needless twists the film tries to add. By fluidly moving through a number of genres, including crime thriller and on-the-run road film, director Laurent creates a quiet and introspective character study, getting highlight performances from Ben Foster and Elle Fanning. While not exactly the hard-boiled action thriller that it’s being sold as, the film shows director Laurent evolving as a dramatic director and makes the case for Foster as one of the premier actors working today.
Taking place in the 1980s, the story follows Roy Cady (Ben Foster), a hard-drinking New Orleans mob enforcer, who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. While he is still struggling to comprehend the news he just received, his local crime boss Stan (Beau Bridges) orders him to carry out a job of intimidation and that too without carrying a gun with him. While he agrees to his assignment despite his current condition, he nevertheless carries his gun. Sure enough, the job turns out to be an ambush as Roy’s partner is summarily executed, and Roy himself escapes only via a desperate lunge and chaotic shootout.
But as he is headed outside he finds Raquel aka Rocky (Elle Fanning), a teenage call girl tied up in the house and leaves with her. As she was presumably was going to be killed, as well, Roy and Raquel set out to escape Stan, believing Galveston, Texas as a possible hideaway. On the way, however, Raquel requests that they stop in Orange, Texas to collect a debt, but instead kidnaps her three-year-old sister Tiffany (played by twins Tinsley and Anniston Price) from her abusive stepfather. Eventually making their way to a cheap motel by the ocean, where Roy, who’s experiencing horrific coughing fits and expects to drop dead at any moment, must decide how much responsibility he wants to shoulder for these two innocent girls.
From this simple set up grows a complex web of motivation, depravity, and darkness. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but at a sparse 91 minutes, it still burns pretty bright. Fans of Pizzolatto’s most acclaimed work, True Detective, will no doubt appreciate the film’s gritty and real world feel. There’s some action elements, a generous dose of thriller/drama and a redemptive tale. But a big reason why the film is so effective is the way that the narrative unfold. Jim Hammett’s script is taut, intimate, and unrelentingly dark, the story is never complacent and is taken in fresh, and unexpected directions are taken throughout the entire duration of the film. Beyond her well-plotted narrative, Laurent makes nearly every directorial choice a strong one. The violence is cold and raw, such as in a scene where Roy is involved in an intense gunfight. Explosive sounds are unleashed, causing the audio to ring and become muffled as Foster’s character unapologetically kills with unsettling silence.
There’s not a scene that lingers too long or a moment wasted. She utilizes some stellar one-take scenes that pull you into the moment. These nail-biting scenes left me wanting to see how Laurent as a director would do with more action heavy films. There’s also a fantastic single-shot towards the end of the film that shows off some fantastic visual technique and style. Even the coda at the end of the film, which could have easily ringed false was perfectly executed. Despite the way it starts out, this isn’t a road film. Most of it is spent at a generic motel in the middle of nowhere where Roy and Rocky get to know one another and form a tentative bond. Just when we think we know where the film is going, however, it takes a sharp turn, eviscerating the expected cliché with finesse. While the film could have easily turned into a traditional revenge picture, director Laurent is after something subtler and more nuanced.
The themes in the film are undoubtedly heavy, but the darkness is punctuated by moments of hilarious levity that take the edge off of Ray and Rocky’s bleak circumstances. It promises to be a crime thriller, and does not disappoint, but it’s these moments of lightness that make the film. It’s through the tender, sometimes misguided interactions between Ray and Rocky that the true spirit of the film is conveyed. Thankfully, screenwriter Jim Hammett doesn’t try to establish some sort of creepy romance. The film doesn’t need that and the relationship bond works just fine without the physical affection. Although director Laurent has empathy for the characters, their situation is desperate and there are no good options.
While there are traces of that sentimentality present, especially in the films closing, director Laurent and screenwriter Jim Hammett purposely eschew sympathy for Roy throughout most of the film. With his hard drinking and violent lifestyle, Roy is notably unsympathetic. A drunken encounter with an ex-girlfriend Loraine (Adepero Oduye) near the middle of the film, in which she recounts their awful life together, clarifies just how callous he is. In overplaying his hand, Roy puts himself and Rocky in harm’s way and, in the end, he is forced to decide between real sacrifice and self-preservation. The same goes for Rocky, whose turn to prostitution is necessitated by her escape from a small town life. She’s both unapologetic with her choices and dependent on Roy to provide. When her history is finally revealed, in a pretty incredible motel-room monologue late in the film, Rocky truly breaks out, revealing a character whose previous abuses have essentially predetermined her life, no matter what choice she makes.
The final act was also a legit surprise. Bookended with scenes set against the backdrop of Hurricane Ike’s devastating 2008 landfall, I didn’t necessarily like that choice, but it made a certain sense in the context of the film. A scene late in the film with helps justify the decision and eases the film to its well-earned conclusion.
But of course the film is far from perfect, as director Melanie Laurent doesn’t maneuver through the story in the most delicate of fashions. She bumps against the wall several times by using contrived techniques to create story melodies, such as having Roy and Rocky have their happiest moment just before everything goes to hell. The film’s tone also isn’t always consistent, and that ends up being quite distracting. The film is predominantly a drama, but there are some sudden moments of action that are jarring. The film would have been better off if it had fully committed to being a character drama instead of a blend of action and drama. That would have made it feel much more unique and personal. The film also has some empty metaphors throughout, a frequent characteristic of melodrama.
Thankfully, the performances more than make up for the flaws. Laurent, a great actor in her own right, often allows Foster and Fanning room to act opposite each other, choosing to shoot uninterrupted medium and wide shots to highlight their performances. Ben Foster is excellent as the soul-sick, life-weary Roy, and there are few working character actors who can play this role better than Foster, whose recent work shows the depth and breadth of his talent. Foster, as well, is unsurprisingly brilliant in his portrayal of Roy. An under-appreciated actor, who has been delivering great performances for over a decade now, seems to finally be having a moment, with this and director Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace‘ earlier this year.
He is equally matched by Fanning, whose subtle performance here suggests a nuanced take on abuse and survival and the impact on one’s life, and her performance is captivating in every way. In smaller roles, Beau Bridges and Lili Reinhart manage to leave a strong impact. On the whole, ‘Galveston’ is a solid crime thriller with noir inflections, which despite a few shortcomings thrives on the strength of its performers, script and impeccable direction.
Directed – Mélanie Laurent
Rated – NR
Run Time – 91 minutes