The latest film from actor-turned-director Melanie Laurent, GALVESTON is a patiently directed and often inventive-looking feature. Although Laurent’s confidence behind behind the camera is needed (along with the stellar lead performances) to colour in a thin-feeling script, GALVESTON gets its audience to invest in the fate of these characters as they try to navigate this neo-noir dustscape.
Ben Foster plays Roy, a criminal thug sent out on a job which nearly results in his death and he believes to be a set up. In the midst of this, he feels obligated to save the life of Rocky (Elle Fanning), a young woman caught up in the event. She convinces Roy to go and collect toddler Tiffany from her family home (retrieved following an ominous gunshot off-screen), before going on the lam at a seaside motel to stay ahead of Roy’s criminal boss (Beau Bridges) and Roy’s worsening lung cancer.
From the beginning, Laurent shows a confidence in her direction that allows the mood of the piece – based on a novel by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolato – to settle. Cameras are placed in locations that aid the flow of the story but are just that little bit off-kilter: the back of a truck, for instance, or relying on silhouette to illustrate a scene. It sets the tone nicely – not everything here will be spelled out, and not everything will be brought into the light and lingered on. It is also done in a way that allows a focus to be placed on her lead actors – the direction is stylish but not unnecessarily flashy.
Ben Foster, coming off a string of career-making performances (THE PROGRAM, HELL OR HIGH WATER, LEAVE NO TRACE) is in familiar territory here. At first, it seems he might be going with a more mumbly version of his HELL OR HIGH WATER persona, but it settles into a much more physical and facially expressive performance. An example of this may be a single tracking shot near the conclusion – maybe the one instance where Laurent decides to show off a bit – following Roy as he tries to navigate a labyrinthine criminal headquarters. Laurent still positions the frame with equanimity, as it would be easy to cut and add in some shot or framing that heightens the peril. Instead, she calmly follows and allows Foster’s pace and movements to communicate instead.
Elle Fanning creates a lot of empathy for Rocky in her work, and as the more emotionally present character does much of the heavy lifting for demonstrating the burgeoning platonic bond (Roy is a frequently a more caged beast, whose cancer-induced coughing flares at moments of emotional expression). An exploited young woman, but capable of expression, she works nicely as the yin to Roy’s yang of protective nature and stunted eloquence.
It’s unfortunate the third act of this touching portrait of damaged souls, who find something in each other outside romance, goes the route it does. This final act returns to the more pulpy, potboiler-style harsh injection of drama – it’s not one that suits the visual style of the film, and somewhat undermines the poise until then. It’s symptomatic of a script that is, in truth, pretty thin, hence the reliance on Laurent’s direction and the performances of Fanning and Foster. I would say ‘over-reliance’, but the film ends up doing rather well out of it. How much of this script thinness come from the reported differences between Laurent’s vision and Pizzolato’s original adaptation of his own work I cannot say, having not read the novel. However, the final result result here is undoubtedly more indebted to Laurent’s visual acuity and the acting.
Nevertheless, that change of narrative lane does set up a touching final scene where Foster’s Roy finally indicates what the events of the film meant to him. Aided by the weight of the performances to that point (opposite an excellent cameo-length showing from Lili Reinhart), it wraps up the story in a way that feels profound, a comment on how the disadvantages people face and the way they are unfairly remembered as a result can have a ripple effect on the lives of those around them.
GALVESTON is far more contemplative than one might expect from the plot synopsis, and confident work from Laurent and the lead actors galvanises the light script to multiplicative effect.