On paper, Galveston feels like a sure thing. Inglourious Basterds icon Mélanie Laurent is writing and directing her fourth narrative feature – an adaptation of True Detective mastermind Nic Pizzolatto’s pre-fame novel of the same name. Laurent brings the macho essence of Pizzolatto’s text – revolving around a beach-bound road trip with a dying, low-level thug (Ben Foster), and the prostitute he “rescues” during a double-cross – to life, while toning down the ostentatious author’s flair for theatrical dialogue. However, Pizzolatto’s usual grizzled poverty porn remains, placing it right in line with the two seasons of his win some/lose some HBO series.
Unfortunately, Laurent dials Pizzolatto’s blue-collar warrior poet nonsense back perhaps a bit too much, as Galveston floats along on a wavelength of general competence that could’ve used just a touch of the writer’s ridiculous posturing to stand out. Instead, what we’re left with is a mostly ho-hum road movie, as Foster and Fanning never quite become the Bonnie & Clyde we’re hoping for, instead settling into a rather routine pulp storyline about tough guys refusing the call of redemption, and a hooker who (of course) can do so much better for herself if she just gave up the scummy station life’s circumstances have stuck her with. We’ve read this book before, and Galveston never presents a healthy case for us returning to these scummy stomping grounds.
Now, that's not to say Laurent’s picture is totally missing inspired moments. The writer/director is seriously stretching beyond a “comfort zone” – her three previous features being dramas of the strictest French sort – staging the genre elements with an eye for drugstore detective novel textures. The cavernous back rooms of a commercial laundry facility are what Foster’s trigger man calls his office, the crumbling structure no doubt infested with asbestos and chemical fumes that’re chewing his infested lungs to pieces. Motel rooms are stuffed with tiny, grimy details: light switches that are taped over and not working, shower curtains that are molded and stuck to the ruddy tub, those tacky pink motel sheets that are probably crawling with bed bugs. At the same time, both of our leads’ bodies are scarred and weathered, evidence of hard living existing next to faded prison tattoos. The details that make up a great lurid chronicle are here, and cinematographer Arnaud Portier (Les Cowboys) lets them seep into our consciousness, making us pine for a shower as soon as the end credits roll.
Unfortunately, neither the performers nor their stories ever really kick up into the next gear. Foster is all intensity as Roy Cady – chain-smoking Marlboros, shooting well whiskey, and threatening doctors when they won’t tell him just how much time his lungs have left before the rot inside causes them to give out. Meanwhile, Fanning is trying her hardest to make anything out of Raquel Arceneaux, a hooker who doesn’t quite have a heart of gold but will storm into her old stepfather’s backwoods shack and shoot him dead, just to rescue her little sister Tiffany (Tinsley Price). Together, these two try to find comfort in one another, but the bad men (dispatched by Beau Bridges’ vindictive crime boss “Big Country”) are going to ensure that their story doesn’t end in anything but blood, tears and tragedy. Maybe with another pass at the script, the relationship elements could have resonated just a little more, but as is they play out like stock beats taken from a guide on how to pen a modern Jim Thompson novel.
Roy’s stab at reconciliation with an ex (Adepero Oduye), and a climactic long take suspense sequence showcase Laurent really trying to bring the material alive. Add on a mournful coda that finds Roy attempting to make sense of these violent events twenty years later – which almost feels like a bit of Pizzolatto self-parody, but still mostly works – and all the elements for Galveston to become a meaty treat seem to be present. Sadly, the movie is never able to rid itself of a somewhat somnambulant aura, as these wayward bottom feeders hope to find a better life, and we know that nothing but pain and sadness await in their future. Galveston isn’t a total waste; it’s just merely mediocre, which may be the biggest crime of all. Here’s an incredible collection of artists, all working together to try and craft a piece of somber, idiosyncratic storytelling. Instead, the movie is little more than a curiosity for fans of all involved, destined to await completists dropping a few digital dollars once Laurent’s work hits VOD.
Galveston will continue to screen at SXSW Friday, March 16th, at the ZACH Theater (8:30 PM), and Saturday, March 17th, at the AFS Cinema (5:45 PM).