‘Galveston’ SXSW Review: Mélanie Laurent’s southern-fried noir packs a punch

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An ailing man of violence rescues a young prostitute from her tormenters, and sets out on the road with her. Everything from The Searchers to Taxi Driver has used that premise and colored it with their own thematic flourishes, but there’s something deeply intriguing about how director Mélanie Laurent utilizes it in her fourth overall and first English-language film, Galveston, written by True Detective scribe Nic Pizzolatto (based on his book), which uses what would be a third-act climax in other films to tell a fascinating new story.

That ailing man of violence is Roy (Ben Foster), a hitman suffering from some sort of lung ailment, most likely cancer, who is double-crossed by the hood that he works for. Roy survives the assassination attempt, and in the process manages to rescue a young woman named Raquel (Elle Fanning) who was forced into sex work by circumstance and a terribly abusive step-father. The two, soon joined by Raquel’s three year-old sister, head out on the lam together, and begin to form a paternal bond with one another, one seemingly doomed by Roy’s imperiled mortality and the threat of retaliation from the mobster who tried to have them killed.

Pizzolatto, having a chance to self-edit that few novelists ever get the chance to, makes a number of wise choices with regards to his screenplay. Chief amongst them is the fact that he ditches his novel’s achronological structure — which flashed back and forward in time depending on the chapter — and this structural change gives the film a propulsion the other just couldn’t have. This means, for fans of the book, that we don’t spend a significant amount of time in the close-to-present day, and you’ll be stunned at how little you miss it. Laurent, as well, has as strong a hand on her work as Cary Fukunawa did on the first season of True Detective (they both love the tungsten light of lampposts, and thematically resonant tracking shots) and is able to construct her version of the film free from any and all supernatural gimmicks that could weight her work down.

Galveston is captured honestly here, and her choice of locales — a motel that reminds one of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a mob operation run out of a laundromat — feel authentic. Her actors, as well, are directed brilliantly: Foster’s perhaps a more tender presence here than he was in Leave No Trace even though he’s required to be tougher, and Fanning, once again, turns in an astonishing performance, full of life and vulnerability and strength. This holds even when Pizzolatto’s script has them doing some goofy shit (Big Star’s “Thirteen” plays pretty big part in the aesthetic color, and Fanning’s breathy in-scene cover of it draws more question marks than anything else).

But coming in at a brisk 90 minutes, Galveston is a neo-noir model of narrative efficiency anchored by excellent work by two of our finest actors, and a film that will hopefully serve as Laurent’s introduction to the world of English-language cinema as something other than an actress.

Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo courtesy of Low Spark Films.