By Valerie Kalfrin
A double-crossed hit man finds himself on the run with a mysterious young woman in Galveston (2018), a film that starts off like a dramatic thriller but winds up, like its characters, on an unexpected and affecting journey.
A film festival release now available on DVD and Blu-ray, Galveston is the fourth feature from director Mélanie Laurent, whom American audiences likely first met as the vengeful Shosanna in Inglorious Bastards (2009). Over the past decade, Laurent has continued acting (Beginners, Now You See Me, By the Sea) while also directing, coaxing powerful performances from actors in films about characters’ interior struggles such as in Breathe (2014).
Based on the novel by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto (who also wrote the screenplay), Galveston has the earmarks of a typical crime yarn — brooding protagonist, young woman with a sketchy past, desolate stretches of road — but it unfolds like a character study. What brings together Roy (Ben Foster, Leave No Trace) and Rocky (Elle Fanning, Teen Spirit) becomes secondary to the friendship of these two people with hard lives who decide the other deserves some kindness.
Roy, coughing blood from a diagnosis he’s too scared to hear, is a flunky for Stan (Beau Bridges, TV’s Homeland), a dry cleaner dodging federal charges. Stan sends Roy to a house to handle a man connected to the federal probe, but the situation flips, and another guy tries to kill Roy. Roy gets the upper hand, then finds Rocky, a barely legal sex worker, tied to a chair. He cuts her loose and they drive off, looking for somewhere to lie low and decide what to do next.
Rocky initially tries to cozy up to Roy, flirting like she assumes he wants, but he rebuffs her, telling her to drop the “baby doll” stuff. He’ll play straight with her if she’s straight with him. No one asks that in her experience, so she first tells him that someone owes her money, directing him to a shack that had been her home. As she enters, a young girl steps into the yard, staring at Roy like a ghost. He’s so transfixed, he’s doubly astonished to hear gunshots. Then, Rocky dashes out with a white garbage bag of belongings. She scoops up the child and tells him to drive. Tiffany (Anniston and Tinsley Price) is her sister, she says. She’ll take care of her now.
Rocky and Roy each have their secrets, but one strength of Galveston is how the script doesn’t spell things out easily. The audience watches how these characters discover how much to trust each other and what to reveal. The violence here also isn’t stylized, befitting this low-key story; yet it feels intimate and real. It happens suddenly, like the crack of lightning, or quietly, like an arm around a throat.
Stan isn’t about to let a loose end dangle, but the crux of the story is the delicate relationship between the two main characters. Roy, Rocky, and Tiffany wind up at a motel in Galveston, Texas; the type of place that, similar to the setting of 2017’s The Florida Project, acts as a home for people a step away from the streets. One resident, Tray (Robert Aramayo, Nocturnal Animals), sizes up Roy as someone who’d be good for the drug heist he wants to pull. The manager (C.K. McFarland, Little Boy) forms another opinion — threatening to call the law for anything shady she senses between Roy and his “nieces” whom she’s not convinced are related.
Foster and Fanning have a push-pull chemistry of people used to hiding vulnerabilities and hating when they appear. Rocky isn’t a prize or a trope to be saved — as can be the case in this genre — as much as a wounded soul who yearns for a better life for herself and Tiffany. Roy, meanwhile, is pained to realize he has a heart. It’s hard for each of them to let go of judgments, all too easy to fall back on whatever led them down this path, even as they ache for something good, like a simple trip to the beach. When they finally connect, it’s all that more precious—and heartbreaking.
Star rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars