Galveston (Mélanie Laurent, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Galveston, based on the eponymous book by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Mélanie Laurent (Diving), is both a stylish slow-burn of a noirish thriller, meticulously acted by a cast that includes Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) and Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), and a maddening exercise in cinematic sadism. Pick your narrative poison: to go with it or resist. I did the former, with deep enthusiasm, until a particularly cruel plot twist at the end pushed me to the latter position. There are still some good things to recommend, but the bitter aftertaste in my mouth makes me choke a bit on the endorsement.
Foster plays Roy, a fortyish jack-of-all-trades heavy for a New Orleans mob boss (Beau Bridges). One night he finds himself on the wrong end of a job gone very wrong and ends up on the run with 19-year-old Raquel (or Rocky, as she prefers), played by Fanning. From a rough background of poverty and abuse, she’s been working as a prostitute, a profession she finds difficult to abandon. Nevertheless, she sticks with Roy, mostly because she has no choice, as they flee west towards the coastal city of Galveston, Texas, picking up Rocky’s little sister Tiffany along the way. Once at their destination, they try to lay low, but time does not appear to favor them, especially since Roy has what appears to be lung cancer. This could be their final stop.
With great economy of storytelling, Laurent moves the plot along through scenes both violent and calm. She and her cinematographer, Arnaud Potier (Les Cowboys), create a landscape that recalls the great American tradition of road movies, with a dash of crime-drama unease sprinkled liberally on top. Even the idylls on the beach, where Roy lies in momentary peace watching Rocky and Tiffany play in the sand, are layered with portent, since we suspect it won’t last. Foster and Fanning, a generation apart, have a great, easy rapport, and it’s a pleasure to watch them just be. But all good things must come to an end.
Sadly, not only do foreshadowed events come to pass, but do so in a gruesome fashion. I cannot quite forgive the movie (or the source text) its final act, so brutal is its explosion of savagery. Sure, this world is often unkind to innocents, but the viciousness – made worse by a not-so-latent misogyny that surprised me, coming from Laurent – of what happens to one of the characters is inordinately off-putting. The final coda strives for atonement of sorts, but it’s not quite enough. Nevertheless, there’s enough here to praise, up to a point, with the enormous caveat that Galveston is a heartless place to linger.