WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Roy Cady is a professional hitman who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer and after escaping a trap set up for him by his own boss, he finds himself on the run with a young prostitute and her kid sister. The trio soon find themselves laying low in a hotel in Cady’s hometown, Galveston, where they are forced to confront where they came from and where they’re going.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Galveston marks the English-language directorial début of Melanie Laurent, the fantastic French actress probably still best known to international audiences for playing Shoshana in Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. I have never seen any of the French films she directed (South African cinemas seem to show less and less foreign language films with each passing year) but her first crack at the American and English-speaking market may be far from entirely successful, but it does show a director very much in command of her abilities as a filmmaker.
She also displays a penchant for grit, visceral violence and hard, uncompromising brutality that was once mostly the purview of male directors like Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma but that baton is increasingly being picked up by talented, relatively young female directors like Ms Laurent.
Make no mistake about it: Galveston may have occasional moments of hope and joy, but it is, overwhelmingly, a tough and at times very unpleasant crime drama. It has been described as “noir” and, though it technically very much fits the bill, it’s a far cry from the massively entertaining classic Hollywood noir that was such a staple of the industry’s Golden Years, and that seemed to star, more often than not, Humphrey Bogart as the gruff gum-shoe detective that everyone loved to love. Galveston’s unflinching toughness is admirable, but it’s very seldom even remotely enjoyable.
Ben Foster continues to be one of cinema’s best kept secret weapons; a still, stoic screen presence who often comes across like a less obviously charming Ryan Gosling but who is, in fact, a phenomenal actor who constantly brings emotional intensity to even the subtlest roles. He was brilliant in last year’s largely overlooked Leave No Trace, and he does his best with what he is given here. The problem is, though, that there’s subtle characterisation and there’s barely there characterisation, and his Roy Cady is just too unlikable and too vaguely drawn to make audiences actually care about him.
On the other hand, Elle Fanning once again proves herself to be an exceptional young actress and, though her Raquel “Rocky” Arceneaux plays just a bit too close to the “teenage hooker with a heart of gold” stereotype, she is the obvious heart of the film. She can occasionally be as unpleasant as Cady, but she and her little sister, Tiffany (twins Anniston and Tinsley Price) bring some emotional breadth to the film that dilutes the rest of the film’s unbridled harshness and gives audiences something to latch onto.
Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote both the screenplay and the novel on which it is based, is, like everyone else involved with this production, clearly very talented. He is best known as the creator and chief writer of True Detective and there’s a lot of that acclaimed crime show in Galveston’s DNA. Like True Detective, he brings something of a poetic, very slightly unreal quality to his crime story and like True Detective is can also be a bit of a slog to get through but is actually quite a bit bleaker and less accessible than, well, at least season one of True Detective (I still haven’t seen seasons two or three) and without the truly memorable characters.
There’s also the definite feeling that Galveston thinks it’s far deeper than it actually is and, though it is certainly “artier” than most films in its genre, its grimness almost entirely overtakes it. A scene later on in the film, especially, that I can’t describe at all for fear of spoilers takes an already slow and bleak story and turns it into something deeply unpalatable, arguably even exploitative. The entire finale, in fact, packs a serious emotional punch but it also feels manipulative in all the worst ways.
Sadly, despite all the things that it gets very right and for all of its top-tier talent, it’s hard to actually recommend Galveston to anyone but crime-noir fans with the strongest of stomachs. I can’t lie; I personally found it virtually unbearable. I can say this, though: we already know that Laurent is a great actress, but she has more than proven herself to be a filmmaker to watch out for.