Let’s say you come across gritty desperadoes-on-the-run thriller “Galveston,” maybe flipping channels or because you decided to take a gamble and buy the Ben Foster-Elle Fanning drama on-demand. Watching the tough, Gulf of Mexico road movie unfold — burning slow and even from Louisiana to its title Texas destination like a lit cigarette in a dead man’s hand — you’d never guess who directed it.
Adapted from a novel by “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto, the movie is a muscular slice of Southern noir, fashioned in the mode of such downbeat ’70s crime classics as “Night Moves” and “The Drowning Pool,” where characters you like wind up dead, and evil isn’t necessarily punished in the end. That’s a style that has appealed to the manliest of male directors over the years, and one whose regional authenticity tends to rely on native-born filmmakers, so it may surprise you to learn that this one is the handiwork of French actress-cum-helmer Mélanie Laurent.
Coming off a low-key festival run that began back at SXSW (and oddly found the film dropped from the Toronto lineup at the last minute), “Galveston” doesn’t seem likely to make much of a splash upon release — more to do with challenges of today’s release landscape than the film itself — but it compellingly demonstrates that those who think categories such as “female” and “French” are somehow liabilities in doing justice to a certain kind of story need to check their prejudices at the door (that means you, Jason Blum — here’s yet another woman who could out-direct most of the inexperienced dudes Blumhouse hires).
“Galveston” is tough, uncompromising, and hauntingly believable, just a little too slow and a lot too serious for today’s typical action audiences. But that’s what makes it such a diamond in the rough on this fall’s film calendar: It’s a hardboiled paean to the lost art of chivalry, the story of 40-ish pulp-fiction antihero Roy Cady (Foster), who barely evades death, rescues barely legal escort Rocky (Fanning), and sets off to make things right before he’s brought low by whatever can’t-be-good condition is making his lungs bleed.
On the surface, yes, it’s a twisted, testosterone-fueled fantasy in which some lost-cause guy goes out in a blaze of glory, attempting to redeem his worthless life through a rare act of selflessness (in France, the obvious precedent for this would be Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic “Le Samouraï,” itself an homage to American crime movies). But Laurent recognizes that the female character isn’t just a prop in Roy Cady’s redemption but a person with hopes and dreams in her own right — although Rocky does return home early on to pick up a 3-year-old who serves as little more than a prop until the final scene.
Laurent didn’t write “Galveston” (the script, by newcomer Jim Hammett, was sent to her), but she recognized it as a chance to collaborate with Fanning, whom she already knew and admired, and who is uniquely suited for the role. As the former child star ages into adulthood (and emerges from sister Dakota’s shadow), audiences have been grappling with how to adjust their perception of her. “Galveston” leverages those feelings in a smart way, recognizing that Fanning still looks far too young to be coming on to much-older men, as her character precociously does here, even as it sees in her a strength that’s relatively new to the actress’s repertoire — and which enables a big surprise late in the film.
For his part, Foster is acting comfortably within his wheelhouse, playing a variation on the sort of grizzled, volatile, and deeply tortured loners that have become his stock in trade. He’s incredibly good at it, so much so that it hardly matters how little he physically resembles the character Pizzolatto described in his novel: a tall, East Texas type whose criminal associates call him “Big Country” on account of his long hair, unshaved beard, and closet full of jeans, black T-shirts, and cowboy boots. Here, Roy Cady looks and acts like Ben Foster, which just goes to show what a star can do for a role that was probably written with someone more like Matthew McConaughey in mind.
So much of “Galveston” belongs to a well-worn genre that audiences could probably write a movie like this themselves — which may also explain why the result seems like such a departure from the three, relatively sunny character dramas Laurent has directed before (“The Adopted,” “Breathe,” and “Plonger”). Much of this one takes place in the shadows, where the darkness can be so black at times, it could have been conjured up from the recesses of either Roy or Rocky’s id. The movie’s big set-piece — a seven-minute sequence shot in which a battered Roy rips himself from rock bottom, forces himself out into the sun, and makes his getaway in a stolen car — comes from somewhere just as animalistic.
There’s a stark, almost spooky feel to the entire film, emphasized by DP Arnaud Potier’s high-contrast widescreen lensing, in which characters frequently find themselves either entirely backlit (transformed into striking silhouettes) or caught in the glow of artificial lights (awash in blue and green neon or bathed by amber indoor bulbs). Those color schemes give nighttime scenes a surrealistic quality that clashes with the harshness the characters experience by day, lending an almost hallucinogenic quality to a trip that shifts into outright reverie at times — as it does during those rare moments when Roy and Rocky find a moment’s peace.