Review: Galveston (2018)


Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston is a modest character piece with excellent central performances from Ben Foster and Elle Fanning. All the same, I can’t help but wonder what the film would’ve looked like had Laurent leaned into the source material’s pulpiness and noir style, instead of transforming it into a textured arthouse drama. I know it’s a dangerous game playing what-if with movies, but there’s a stylized roughness to Nic Pizzolatto’s novel (creator of True Detective) that is borne directly out of film noir, where traumatized men return to the workaday world and can no longer come to terms with its rules, and the women who suddenly have power they never did before. Had Laurent set this tale of a terminally-ill hitman and a young prostitute hiding out together in Galveston, Texas back in the 1940s instead of the late 1980s, it would’ve been appropriate and excused some of the coarser elements of the story. But as it stands, she leans into the novel’s ellipses and emphasizes the moments of silence shared between the characters. This isn’t noir anymore, but drama—and artfully-made drama at that.

But there’s no point in talking about what could’ve been when what is is pretty good. Not great, mind you, but neither is Pizzolatto’s novel. What works here is the central relationship between a gruff, hurting older man, Roy (Foster), and a tough, hurting younger woman, Rocky (Fanning), that establishes a strong emotional core. Foster and Fanning let the relationship live in the space between family and lovers. For instance, he’s occasionally fatherly to her, but he doesn’t assume responsibility where he has none. She occasionally flirts with him, assuming he’s attracted to her (which he obviously is), but she doesn’t push it or make their relationship transactional, and he never lets the way he looks at her erase his concern for her or the desire to genuinely care for her. These are very good performances that take advantage of the depths of the characters’ backstories, even if they play into conventions.

Laurent showcases a good directorial eye as well. Eschewing deep shadows (as you’d see in noir) or narrow depth of focus (as you get in True Detective), Laurent relies on medium-wide compositions and ochre tones. There’s an earthiness to the film, whether it’s the way her camera focuses on the sand on the beaches of Galveston or the dirt in the parking lot of the motel they stay at or the chocolate on the face of Rocky’s little sister, Tiffany. It does a lot to ground you in the moment and let you feel the history in the characters’ lives. There’s a weight to their interactions and Laurent lets the characters breathe—perhaps a little too much sometimes, as the film seems long for one that only runs 94 minutes.

The ending, which flash-forwards 20 years and has Lili Reinhart (of Riverdale fame) as an older version of one of the characters, is not as successful as what comes before. It leans into the sentimentality that was lurking beneath the surface of much of the film, making explicit what is only hinted at, and is more successful the subtler it is played. But even that final sentimentality cannot erase the deep wells of sadness in the narrative.

This is not a happy film, nor an especially enjoyable one. Neither was the book. But both film and book are well-made and worthwhile in their looks at masculinity and redemption and humanity’s predilection for suffering. I just wish Galveston the film were more of a genre piece, one that explores the depths of human suffering under the guise of entertainment. True Detective is dark and depressing as well, but at least it gives me some riveting mysteries to pay attention to in the midst of the pain.

6 out of 10

Galveston (2018, USA)

Directed by Mélanie Laurent; written by Nic Pizzolatto (as Jim Hammett), based on his novel; starring Ben Foster, Elle Fanning, Lili Reinhart, Adepero Oduye, Robert Aramayo, María Valverde, CK McFarland, Beau Bridges.