Mélanie Laurent is best known as Shoshana in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but in recent years the actress has placed her focus on directing. Her latest project is crime drama based upon a novel by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto, Galveston. It’s a tragic, fatalistic drama led by two strong performances and anchored by Laurent’s strong direction.
Galveston opens in a doctor’s office as Roy (Ben Foster) takes a look at X-rays of his lungs, the image presenting a clouded substance in his lungs. He doesn’t sit to wait the doctor’s diagnosis. Roy just storms out of the office and heads to work as if nothing’s wrong. His boss Stan (Beau Bridges) sends him out on a job but it’s a set up. Roy was able to kill his would-be killers and in the rundown house with bloodstained walls he discovers Rocky (Elle Fanning), a hard luck young woman who has turned to prostitution. The two set out on the lam, making a quick detour to pick up Rocky’s younger sister Tiffany (Tinsley and Anniston Price). Gunshots rang out as Roy sat in the car, Rocky assuring her companion that it was just a warning shot.
The trio find themselves in a dingy motel. The hotel keeper has a leery eye on her new tenants. It’s at this secluded location that Roy discovers in the newspaper that Rocky’s shots fired were fatal, and part of a dark, repressed chapter in her past. Roy is then proposition into a drug heist by Tray (Robert Aramayo), a young ne’er do well. When Roy ventures off to set up a deal with his former boss after his betrayal, Rocky starts turning tricks at the motel. They’ve set out to create a new life for themselves but it’s not so easy when you’re stuck in Galveston.
The main thrust of Galveston is Roy’s determination to do something good before he succumbs to his illness. A man who drinks too much, smokes too much and have made a living in a life of crime is struggling to go out on the right note, but the world created in the film by Pizzolatto and screenwriter Jim Hammett isn’t the kind of world that easily lets sinners off the hook. Sometimes the dialogue of Galveston is weighed down by a bit of the macho posturing that finds its way into Pizzolatto’s works but Mélanie Laurent brings a light touch that softens some of the author’s blunt force dialogue.
With her fourth feature and first in English, it’s apparent that Mélanie Laurent is true talent in front and behind the camera. She doesn’t weigh her film down with needless stylistic flourishes, opting for a much more subtle approach that gives her actors the room to fill the frame with subtle gestures that say so much more than just screaming it aloud. Ben Foster anchors this films with his wounded performance that fits right in with the broken, fatalistic world of the film. While Elle Fanning is a fantastic actress and Laurent a strong female director, it’s the character of Rocky who really gets the short end. Fanning gets big weepy moments that play on awards reels but Pizzolatto and Hammett struggle to give the character more depth and Laurent just can’t fill in the blanks.
Much of Galveston seems as if it’s these broken characters following their destiny. Then the final act of the film hits and twists and turns your expectations while retaining a certain element of that fatalism that has permeated throughout. It’s not a great movie by any stretch but one that is happy to exist in its deadly world of criminals and their internalized pain. It’s a well-acted movie with Foster and Fanning delivering strong, affecting performances. But the star of Galveston doesn’t appear on the screen as director Mélanie Laurent brings a light touch to the battle hardened material. Considering just how easily this material could’ve devolved into some macho bullshit but Laurent keeps it anchored in the characters and gives her actors all the room they need to focus on their journey in an ugly world.
A southern tragedy from actress-turned-director Mélanie Laurent, Galveston is a fatalistic journey into darkness but one that has plenty of light due to the two strong lead performances and the deft direction of Laurent.